If you are a starving Metroid fan like myself but you haven’t already played Metroid: Samus Returns, then chances are you already bought it and are simply waiting to unwrap the case.
For everyone else: for those who are casual fans of the Metroid legacy, new Nintendo fans who want a taste of the series’ 2D offerings, or 3DS owners who want something new to play, I’m hard pressed to recommend Samus Returns, and it pains me to admit it. The work that MercurySteam did with Nintendo to pull the Metroid franchise off of its second death bed is commendable. The presentation is all here with the character modeling, the music composition, some actually stellar use of the 3DS screen that actually adds a level of depth and immersion to the 2-and-a-half dimensional look of the game, they are all top notch. By every right, these efforts should have produced the Metroid franchises’ equivalent to The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds, where a classic 2-D game is reimagined, innovated upon but also lovingly rebuilt into something startlingly familiar to its 8 or 16-bit counterpart. Unfortunately, Samus Returns is just shy of achieving that greatness and it’s no fault of MercurySteam, Nintendo or the game itself, but instead outside forces imposing different standards.
Metroid: Samus Returns is a remake of the 1991 Game Boy title Metroid II: Return of Samus, a game that is impossible to recommend to anyone who is not looking for retro games education or to dive deep into the lore of Metroid and the works of Game Boy creator Gunpei Yokoi. That game, within a black and white (or black and green) color palette on a 2 x 2 inch screen established a lot in the evolution of Metroid that would be seen in later games, like the heat resistant Varia Suit, the Spider-Ball, the plasma beam, and gripping boss battles. But it carried over the lack of a map and a sense of mystery and labyrinthian nausea that was reminiscent of the NES original. Its charm was that there was no charm, and the creators of the game knew it because they made other games on the platform, and the platform itself. It also has one of the most original systemic structures in the series, as it sends the player and Samus on an extermination mission to find and destroy all the Metroids on their home world of SR388 to ensure they don’t find their way across the galaxy. This goal is a constant reminder with a counter of how many Metroids there are left to destroy in the bottom right corner of the screen at all times, and as they evolve and become increasingly harder the deeper into the planet you traverse, it’s hard to not keep telling yourself “let’s just find one more.” if you can manage to figure out where you’re going without the help of the map.
It goes without saying that Metroid II has been in dire need of a remake for years, especially since the remake of the original Metroid was so successful on the Game Boy Advance. The 16-bit Metroid Zero Mission has been a wonderful entry point for new fans of Metroid as well an addition to the series that encouraged the time crunch speed-running and sequence breaking that the series has become well known for. It’s also the last 2D Metroid game we’ve officially seen since 2004.
Samus Returns set out to accomplish the same things that Zero Mission did, but on Nintendo’s “current” portable platform, the 3DS. The major descriptions of Return of Samus’ structure from the Game Boy largely stays the same in Samus Returns, with clear differences as the original’s contemporary. Obviously, the game is rendered in 3D polygon and also 3D screen depth accessible and a map is added, but MercurySteam added some core gameplay elements that have yet to be featured in a 2D Metroid game. The first, and most important, addition is the 360 degree aim which is activated by holding the Left shoulder button down, allowing Samus to aim entirely around herself, instead of aiming in 8 points of direction. The good and bad of this is that the aim is fluid in itself because it’s controlled by the 3DS’ circle pad, but it also means that Samus’ own movement is also controlled by the circle pad, and it just feels a bit clunky as compared to moving about the map with a proper D-Pad like in previous titles. There are also Aeon Abilities, all of which are activated by the D-Pad and then triggered with the A button. The allow Samus to scan for hidden breakable blocks throughout rooms and reveal the map of the planet, activate a full body energy shield, activate a rapid fire arm cannon or slow down time.
All of these abilities drain your Aeon energy meter, which is regenerated by enemy kills and pads out the game’s upgrade collection by placing expansions to the meter throughout the map in the same way players discover your traditional Energy Tanks, Missile and Super Missile and Power Bomb upgrades. These are all completely optional to use to simply play through the game, but if you’re a true Metroid fan and want to play the game in order to optimize the speed of your playtime and find 100% of the upgrades, you’re going to have to either like them, or get used to them because many puzzles throughout SR388 require their use.
The other major addition to Samus Returns is something also never seen in a 2-D Metroid game: a counter-attack. The X button allows Samus to swing her arm cannon at foes, and is really featured as a means for players to issue a parry. I can only imagine that this was added to add a bit of variety to the game’s pacing, but this counter attack, while effective on paper, simply puts a Band-Aid on two major problems with Samus Returns. The first is that it is small stamp of innovation on a game that mostly sticks to the original Game Boy title, and that includes the variety of enemy types. There are only a few general enemies found throughout the game’s 8 planet sectors excluding the Metroids and boss battles. These general enemies maybe result in 12 common types, a lot of which are not quickly destructible towards the end-game, and the others simply appear in different color that allow them to absorb more bullets later on.
For a game that wants to innovate on the series, its overall structure is far too married to 1991’s Return of Samus and this detriments the pacing of the game in general, which is the other issue.. The counter attack in itself will be a struggle for the speed-running community, who praise the open ended workings of the Metroid series’ and its ability to allow sequence breaks to cut time from a speed-run. I’m not good enough at video games to gloat about my completion time of a Metroid game, but I like to try to replay them to see how much better I do each time, but if I have to be at the mercy of when an enemy decides to attack to effectively kill it instead of destroying them of my own accord, that leaves a lot of unpredictable and messy possibilities for wasted time. The pacing is also detriment by the game’s overall structure in regards to its linearity and time padding.
Usually in a title like Zero Mission or Super Metroid, there is an interconnected layering to the planet you’re exploring so as to encourage backtracking to get upgrades with newfound abilities, and players are all the more rewarded for finding them when they get to the next boss battle with proper missiles and health stocked. This interconnection is nowhere to be found in Samus Returns, and the 8 sections are only linked by single elevators that loop around in a complete circle creating a slogging pace to the normal play through of the game, true to its Game Boy precursor. There are fast travel stations throughout the map, only the second time these have been included, and not since Metroid Prime 2 in 2004, to make backtracking a bit more manageable, but as a result it feels more like going through a laundry list of things to do, and by trying to look back at past sections to explore before I reached the game’s’ final section, I felt like I had simply wasted time and that I should have waited for the end-game to go for my 100% collection rate.
I want to argue that Samus Returns is by no means a bad game, because it is certainly not, but the things I would normally praise it for have been changed to make the game more frustrating, and the things that would be counted upon to be constant in this timeless series are simply not here by the choice of platform it was published on…
I can’t speak to how long Samus Returns was in development, but it is a title that should have been on the Switch, because the Nintendo 3DS is beginning to show that it is nearly 7 years old, keeping in mind that I’m playing on the 3DS XL, and not on the New Nintendo 3DS XL or the 2DS XL. The platform’s 240p resolution looks, literally, rough around the edges, and it would be fine if the frame rate was consistent, but there had been several instances where frames dropped after the first third of my play through. This made me miss the 16-bit charm of the past games, and of indie games that have ripped off the look and Metroidvania format in the time since Fusion and Zero Mission, both of which are games that can be looked back at and played at any time because their art direction is boasted thoughtfully and proudly by the platform’s hardware. Whatever visual direction was imagined for Samus Returns is tarnished by the way it is rendered on the 3DS. And then there is the controls. Samus Returns is a twitchy, fast paced action game, and between the aforementioned clunky circle pad movemnt, a lot of thumb twisting to activate different beams and Aeon abilities and trigger aiming player can experience lots of hand cramping, especially if you’re trying to grapple a block before something attacks or you fall into lava, or worse, try to configure your plan of attack as you load back into a boss battle you’ve failed 15 times before you get hit again.
Then, finally, there is the infamous fan project Another Metroid 2 Remake, which does everything mentioned above, mechanically and aesthetically, spectacularly well, and despite being a simple fan creation, it understands the fun of Metroid II’s core concept and what makes the 2-D additions to the series so timeless.
If you’re a regular consumer of video games, and you want a taste of what the 2D Metroid games have to offer, you’re in luck that all 4 of the main entries are playable right now on the 3DS, and I recommend playing this alongside Metroid: Zero Mission, Super Metroid and Metroid Fusion, but I will admit right away that it is by far the weakest. If you’re already a fan of Metroid, it still plays like the core games for the most part, and if it needs our support from a monetary perspective now more than ever, so by all means play it. Unfortunately, though, I don’t see myself going back to Metroid: Samus Returns again and again with equal amounts of joy like I did with almost every other game in this series, and for a franchise that once had a mark of its legacy be replay-ability, that makes me sad. But maybe I’m a jaded man inching ever closer to 30 and that’s ruined my sense of fun.