Game Review

by Dustin Bailey,

Metroid: Samus Returns

Nintendo 3DS

Metroid: Samus Returns
After a mostly dormant decade, the parasite-hunting bounty hunter is back in Metroid: Samus Returns. A remake of the 1991 Game Boy title, it sees Samus traveling to the Metroid homeworld to hunt down every last one of the pesky parasites before anybody else tries to make use of them for nefarious ends. With all the abilities from the original plus loads of new ones, it's a newly definitive take on Samus's sophomore adventure.
There's a lot of bombast to a title like Samus Returns. Not just a nod to the original Metroid II subhead, this is indeed the return of Samus after an interminable hiatus for the Metroid franchise. It's been thirteen years since the last 2D Metroid, and a decade since the last Prime. Personally, I'd spent that time forgetting I was a fan of the series, coming to terms with the idea that maybe Samus had just become one of those curiosity characters for Smash Bros., at best on the level of a Little Mac, beloved but long-dormant.

But Samus's return is a triumphant one. A full remake of the simplistic Game Boy original, Samus Returns takes the Metroid II skeleton and builds around it what may as well be an entirely new game. You're still delving into the Metroid homeworld and hunting down the monstrous parasites in increasingly evolved forms, getting access to deeper and more intricate caverns as you go, but this may as well be a new game, with new abilities and an increased focus on combat rebuilding and refreshing the adventure for a new age.

Though the 2.5D visuals made a poor impression when they were revealed in HD trailers, on an actual 3DS screen they look not just passable, but incredible. Indeed, the first thing that strikes you is how well this portable game delivers its sense of atmosphere, making every single inch of SR388's caverns feel completely unique and foreboding in their own ways. Though the stage design is all 2D, the 3D visuals allow each scene to have a great sense of depth, allowing the places you explore to feel big, and using background elements to hint at the breadth of the world or foreshadow future boss fights. It's even better with the stereoscopic effect on, and though I feel very strange saying it 2017 this game's use of depth is so well-considered it makes the gimmick feel nearly essential. And if the visuals are impressive, the soundtrack is downright astounding. This is the best an already incredible set of compositions have ever sounded, and tracks like the richly industrial Lava Caves are now so enveloping that it's tough to think of listening to them any other way.

Running through these beautifully rendered alien caves feels tight and snappy, too, with jumps, ledge grabs, and morph balling all handling exactly as you'd want them to, and the addition of free aiming adding an extra layer to battle. The biggest addition to Samus Returns is its melee counter system, which has you looking for a flash of white telegraphing an enemy's charge attack, which you can then counter at the press of a button and fire a single shot for an instant kill. This does a great job of making even standard enemies feel like threats, where in previous Metroid games they were more akin to easily evaded roadblocks. Now you've got to watch and engage with each foe, making combat feel like, well, combat.

The instant playing defensively starts to feel tiresome, though, you'll get enough abilities to quickly and easily bypass the monsters that had given you headaches before. The power curve here feels so good, with each new ability feeling perfectly placed as you run up against the limits of what you can do. By the end, you feel like an unstoppable whirling ball of destruction.

That's not to say the game is easy, because it very definitely is not. Even standard enemies do tons of damage, and later boss fights will require multiple attempts to defeat. The increased nuance afforded by free aim and melee counters means there's a lot more particular skill to defeating big enemies here, in contrast to older games where boss battles are often simply a matter of dumping enough missiles into the monster before your energy runs out. Here you've got to watch the bosses way more carefully, looking for tiny opportunities to strike back. The addition of checkpoints on top of the regular save system does remove some of the tension of exploration, but it's an essential change based on the increased combat focus. Unless you're a savant at reading boss patterns, you will die before figuring it out, and you'll have to see those attacks more than once in order to understand what you need to do to avoid them. That can be frustrating, but it does mean that every victory is satisfying, and by the time you've dealt with a handful of Omega Metroids you'll be easily wrecking them with just a handful of smart counters.

On top of the increased combat focus, the other big addition to Samus Returns are the Aeion abilities, which are governed by a meter recharged by orbs that enemies drop. Most of those abilities are pretty straightforward counters to particular monsters or environmental hazards, but the Scan Pulse makes a fundamental difference in how you explore. This beacon will fill in a selection of the map around you, while highlighting breakable blocks nearby, making map stations obsolete while preventing you from going through the arduous process of bombing each and every square inch of territory in search of energy tanks and missile upgrades. It's a wonderfully smart addition that streamlines exploration without resorting to objective markers, leaving it all in your hands.

Metroid II was a relatively linear game, since your progress was gated every so often by quotas of Metroids to exterminate. Samus Returns uses the same games, but the areas those gates are separated by are now so much more intricate and detailed that it doesn't feel quite so much like a series of bottlenecks. It's easy to get just lost enough to feel like you're truly exploring, but the areas are so naturally designed that it never feels like you're aimless running through them. Instead, it's the exact sort of intuitive level design that you want from the Metroid part of a Metroidvania, offering enough clues to avoid being obtuse without stymying your own sense of exploration.

I'm kind of astounding at just how good Samus Returns really is. It's not just an adequate throwback for the series, it's one of the very best titles to bear the Metroid name. I played it right after returning to Zero Mission and right before replaying Super Metroid, and it feels like it belongs there. It nails all the fundamentals, from the exploration and controls to the sense of atmosphere. Its new additions, seemingly the sort of stuff that would fundamentally change the feel of the game, instead are incredibly well-integrated evolutions that understand what Metroid is and how it can be better. I hope we're not waiting another decade for Samus's next return, because this is the blueprint for a truly tremendous new beginning for the series, and a terrific game in its own right.

Overall : A
Graphics : A-
Sound/Music : A+
Gameplay : A
Presentation : A

+ Tight controls, terrific power curve, well-implemented new abilities
Boss design relies on trial and error

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