Metroid: Samus Returns (3DS) Review
Remember Federation Force? I was sure Metroid was done and dusted, given its reception – that a frustratingly tone-deaf Nintendo would declare “nobody cares about Metroid anymore!” due to its failure to captivate critics and the commercial market. And yet, here we are! A year later, a new Metroid game emerges. I wasn’t sure if MercurySteam, the developer behind Metroid: Samus Returns, could pull it off – but they have. Metroid: Samus Returns is not only the first 2D Metroid game in the thirteen-year void since Zero Mission, but is also a remake of a game that’s over twenty years old. Yet it feels like an entirely new game and a true return to form for the franchise.
A lot has changed in Metroid: Samus Returns, but the story has remained largely the same. Samus has defeated the Space Pirates in the original game and discovered plans to use the life forms known as Metroids as weapons. To ensure that they can’t keep using the Metroids for their own nefarious means, Samus travels to the home planet of the organism, SR388, to wipe them out once and for all. The kicker? The galactic federation tried to already, but all of the teams disappeared. As you’d imagine, Samus has her work cut out for her, tasked with taking out 40 Metroids from the surface of the planet to the dark below.
The story is relegated mainly to some speechless cutscenes and flavour text at the beginning of the game, with some genuine surprises along the way, and Samus herself is characterised rather positively by her in-game actions. In short – this ain’t no Other M.
When Samus Returns was announced, I was apprehensive. How much of a remake would this be? Would it incorporate new areas, new bosses, and new storylines like the team who rebuilt Zero Mission did? Thankfully, Samus Returns isn’t a shot-for-shot remake; there’s some fantastic work done to restore the existing content, but there’s some absolutely exhilarating original content too. Even better, this content doesn’t feel like it’s been haphazardly added to pad the game out, it feels like it always belonged.
If you’ve never played a game like Metroid, I wouldn’t blame you. If you’re apprehensive because this is a sequel, fret not. Metroid: Samus Returns represents a fantastic opportunity for new players to get started with the franchise, as the story works as a self-contained narrative. Of course, it also works as a sequel to the original game that many fans might’ve missed on the Game Boy.
The main premise is to explore SR388 and exterminate the Metroids. As you do this, in waves, more and more of the planet is opened up to you. Metroid veterans may find this frustrating – sequence breaking and speed running are still possible, but much less viable or interesting than other games that involve a larger and more open world. For newcomers, it means that the game still provides some more manageable freedom to explore without being suffocatingly linear like Metroid Fusion.
As you’d expect, Metroid is all about exploration and discovery, and Samus Returns is no different. While the physical layout of the levels has been preserved from the original to some extent, the areas of SR388 you’ll be exploring feel and look brand new. The movement systems seen in more modern titles like Zero Mission and Fusion have also been brought over to Samus Returns. Small touches such as ledge grabbing and more fluid jumping systems also make navigating the locales of SR388 feel less like a chore.
Samus now has a melee counter that provides her with some close quarters defence options if jumped by an enemy. As you become used to timing your counters perfectly, jumping gaps with minimal effort, and climbing the most intimidating of ledges, you’ll realise that Samus Returns represents the most streamlined movement mechanics of the Metroid series to date, and is a better game for it, especially given how much you will be jumping, running, sliding and shooting your way through the games many locales.
The abilities and gear you’ll encounter on SR388 are pretty much what you’d expect for a Metroid game, with some classics making an appearance after their absence in the original Metroid II. Completely new to the franchise, on the other hand, are the Aeion abilities. These let Samus slow time, withstand a certain amount of damage, improve weapon power, or scan the area for clues. While these can be used to overcome some environmental obstacles, they also make the game much more accessible to newcomers by taking the edge off the already burdensome difficulty. Those who want a challenge can simply ignore them, though they are used to great effect in some of the more difficult puzzles.
Speaking of difficulty – the boss battles remain as hard as ever. Completely rebuilt from the ground up, every Metroid encounter feels different, whether it’s due to variations in the environment or their own abilities. You’ll slowly begin to understand what works best against each type as you exterminate them one by one, which is fulfilling. There are even some new boss battles thrown in for good measure, and while it would be cruel for me to spoil them, I will say that they’re incredibly exciting and make great use of the game’s mechanics.
Given the newer developer to the series, it must be asked how the level design complements Samus and her abilities in the game. In one word – fantastically. Each area of SR388 is riddled with new detail that fits within the context of what the planet is meant to be. You’ll notice that parts of each world are designed to be revisited later, encouraging backtracking and highlighting the tight integration of abilities with the planet’s level design. There are even fast travel stations to make backtracking more manageable and less tedious. In short, this is a Metroid game with thoughtful attention paid to its backtracking elements but also streamlined to invite players to willingly do so.
Zero Mission was a great remake but felt short despite the addition of new content. Samus Returns, fortunately, does not disappoint in this department. My initial blind run took me about ten or so hours to complete from beginning to end, though I didn’t backtrack too much to find items. Going back to explore and find everything took even more time, about twenty hours or more. Samus Returns is a meaty Metroid experience – once you’re done, there’s not a whole lot to do beyond speed runs for your own personal bragging rights. Unlocking Chozo Memories is tied directly to your item discovery percentage, which reveals something fascinating about the lore of Metroid through a short slideshow of sorts. Endings are tied to your completion time but don’t vary too much, providing the typical fanfare you’d expect from a Metroid title.
Samus Returns utilises a full 3D art style that provides the developers with better tools to create cinematic battles scenes and pull off some crafty camera work. On one hand, the game looks great and runs at a solid 30fps. On the other, it lacks some of the grittiness that other Metroid games (especially those built in 2D) have previously delivered. Regardless, the new camera work brings life to Samus in the game’s sparse cutscenes, and the 3D effect is used to great effect to bring SR388 to life, teeming with multiple layers and details to fuss over.
The soundtrack is fantastic too, though there is a clear divide between the reused tracks and the original compositions that have been created for this game specifically. As you’d expect, key tracks from Metroid II are reworked here to be just as effective as they were back in the day. Tracks from other games like Metroid Prime are also utilised, though this is more distracting than anything – while such tracks are great in their own right, they feel noticeably out of place in Samus Returns. The new pieces are fantastic and are easily the standout for me, bringing a mood to the atmosphere in their own way rather than trying to pointlessly emulate other games in the franchise.
It sounds cliché, but Metroid: Samus Returns feels like a return to form for the franchise. It has all the key characteristics that you’d expect from a Metroid game – level design crafted to encourage exploration and discovery, a positive characterization of Samus, and a general flow to it like no other game in the franchise. Visually, the game is a feast, if not slightly uninspired, but it takes great advantage of the 3DS hardware to really sell the idea of an abandoned planet that nature has taken back.
The looming question over Samus Returns is whether it will join the ranks of esteemed titles such as the approachable Zero Mission, or the seemingly untouchable Super Metroid. I was in no rush to play it again after finishing it just once, but what MercurySteam have provided here is a solid game – one that easily surpasses the original it’s based on, yet still respects the vision of the creators who built it. It’s so exciting to say this, but Metroid is well and truly back and hopefully here to stay.
Rating: 4 / 5
Samus Feels Like Samus Again
Strong Backtracking Elements
Complete Visual Overhaul
Needless Reuse Of Old Soundtrack
Art Direction Sometimes Feels Uninspired
Not Infinitely Replayable