“Space is big. Really big. You just won’t believe how vastly hugely mindbogglingly big it is. I mean you may think it’s a long way down the road to the chemist’s, but that’s just peanuts to space.”
-Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy
“The following is a guest post by the Over-Caffeinated Nostalgia Mage.”
While Metroid has been a divisive series throughout its existence, the reaction following Nintendo’s E3 presentation in June was predominantly positive. With a cultish following, the series had enjoyed a long and successful life, despite a few shortcomings in recent years. 2010’s Metroid: Other M on the Wii received generally favorable reviews overall, but was far from what gamers were expecting following the success of Metroid Prime 3: Corruption in 2007. Metroid Prime: Federation Force was the marketing nightmare of a lifetime, causing lifelong fans of the series to believe the series was dead to Nintendo.
After all, Metroid titles were never big sellers in Japan, so what would be the point of coming out with a followup to Metroid Prime 3: Corruption? Furthermore, there hadn’t been a 2D Metroid installation since 2004’s Zero Mission. The lack of future 2D title announcements became a tradition that fans expected would continue for many years to come. It had seemed to many like Samus’ adventures in 2D space were over. Until, of course, E3 2017 happened.
The announcement of Metroid: Samus Returns was a surprise to most, especially considering the previous announcement of a true sequel in the Prime series. The kicker here was that Samus Returns would be released on the 3DS, in September, and it would be primarily developed by MercurySteam, a Spain-based game firm who had previously worked on Castlevania: Lords of Shadow. Working in conjunction with Nintendo in roughly two years of development time, Metroid: Samus Returns promised to improve upon its predecessor with new controls, graphics, and gameplay.
Oh, right, Another Metroid 2 Remake – that debacle. While Nintendo’s announcement of an official Metroid II Remake did finally explain their lightning-fast DMCA termination of the AM2R project so quickly, could Metroid: Samus Returns possibly be better than AM2R, hailed as one of the best 2D Metroid games out there?
The story of Metroid: Samus Returns (or rather, the base game, Metroid II: Return of Samus) is as follows: you assume the role of bounty hunter Samus Aran, who has been tasked with the destruction of the Metroid species on the planet of SR388 before the Space Pirates can abduct them for their own nefarious means. In terms of story, nothing has changed there. It’s still as simple as ever to jump into, and it’s never more than it needs to be. Your primary goal is to find and kill all of the Metroids on the planet, although you’ll find much more than just plain ol’ Metroids on SR388…
While the gameplay hasn’t changed since the original, the reveal trailer for Metroid: Samus Returns showed that this was no ordinary remake – many changes were made to the typical 2D Metroid formula we had all come to know and love. The most notable is the new ability for Samus to freely aim in all directions, a huge change from prior 2D installments in which Samus could aim in only angular directions. Of course, making a change like this by itself requires all sorts of tweaks to the traditional 2D gameplay that players were used to. That ability to aim quicker and with greater precision meant that the enemies would need to be tweaked to match.
This need for tweaks to enemy behavior resulted in enemies now having a brief animation before an attack, at which point the player could now employ the melee counter-attack. If timed right, Samus will use her fist to Hulk-smash the approaching enemy, stunning it for a period of time, where she can then easily finish them off with a few quick blasts.
The combination of these two changes have the side effect of changing the behavior of the player. What I noticed as I played Samus Returns was that I spent much less time avoiding enemies like I did in earlier titles, and more time actively seeking to destroy everything in sight. You enter a zen-like state the longer you play, where your melee counter-attacks connect one after the other, and you feel more engaged with Samus than ever before. The best way to explain this phenomenon would simply be to hand you a 3DS and tell you to play for a few minutes; there’s just something about smashing your enemies before blowing them up that is immensely satisfying.
If either of these changes in gameplay inspire the idea that it could kill the snappy controls present in the earlier 2D Metroid titles, think again – Samus is as quick to maneuver than ever. In fact, if you’ve played any 2D Metroid title before picking up Samus Returns for the first time, you’re in for a treat because you will pick up on the controls immediately. The toughest concept to master is, of course, the melee counter-attack, as it’s purely a timing thing, and timing is always based on experience.
The minute-to-minute gameplay of Metroid: Samus Returns isn’t terribly different from the 2D predecessors – you jump from room to room, filling out your map on the bottom screen as you navigate the labyrinth around you. Exploration is the whole point of Metroid titles, after all, and having your second screen of your 3DS specifically for the purpose of a map truly comes in handy. Along your journey you find upgrades to Samus’ equipment, the typical missile and energy tanks, and new toys and abilities to play around with. Not much has changed from previous installments in terms of the gameplay loop. However, one of the most striking differences is the complete lack of Map rooms. You’ll understand why they were omitted in a moment.
Earlier I wrote about two large changes in Metroid: Samus Returns, the free-aiming and the melee counter-attack. If these were two of the three sweeping changes that render Samus Returns a true remake, then the third sweeping change to the 2D Metroid formula is the addition of Aeion abilities. These abilities grant Samus some interesting mechanics that the player manually toggles, each using the new power source never before seen in a Metroid game: Aeion. The Aeion tank itself can be expanded by finding Aeion tank upgrades (similar to Energy Tank upgrades) to allow for longer use of the Aeion abilities. The four Aeion abilities are gradually learned at different stages in the game.
Of these new Aeion abilities, the first that is acquired is the Scan Pulse, which allows Samus to send out a pulse and uncover parts of the map around her. This occurs on the lower screen of the 3DS and means that the Map rooms from previous titles are now rendered obsolete. This also means that gone are the days of shooting and bombing every single square of land in the room, hoping to blow open a secret passageway. Any concerns of a Metroid title being “dumbed down” due to no longer having to do this, fear not, as it’s still just as satisfying to find secrets, and it removes the act of guessing.
Another ability, Beam Burst, allows Samus to fire her cannon in fully automatic fashion, allowing her to tear down large groups of enemies with ease. The Aeion abilities themselves all draw power from the main power gauge, which when upgraded, grants Samus a respectable amount of power to both protect herself and lay waste to enemies around her.
The desire to slay every enemy you come across due to pure satisfaction is compounded when you realize it allows you to keep your Aeion gauge constantly charged. It’s entirely possible to play the game while only minimally using the Aeion abilities to get by, but the fun factor goes straight up while chewing down hordes of bad guys. You can also enable some (or all) of the abilities at a time, but of course this drains your Aeion faster, as they all draw from the same power source.
Of course, what would a Metroid game be without the constant feeling of dread, as you go leaping from room to room, shooting Metroids out of the sky, and taking out mini-bosses with barely a shred of health left? These are things that define the Metroid games. The terrible feeling of isolation, leaping around unintelligent life that only aims to hurt you, with almost nothing on the entire planet but your own ship to remind you that it’s not all bleak and depressing. There may be hope after all!
Capturing this mood, this atmosphere that keeps reminding you that you are alone, that is what makes Metroid: Samus Returns a success at recreating the original Metroid II: Return of Samus and staying true to its roots. The vibe matches previous Metroid games beautifully, and paired with the soundtrack that remixes tracks from previous games in the series, it will be an enjoyable journey exploring SR388 as much as a nostalgic one.
Looking back at Metroid: Samus Returns makes me feel one thing: it focused on making the player have a great time. Every remake should strive not just to enhance the graphics and sound quality, but to build on the success of the base game and make you feel a new experience. Nostalgia sells pre-orders, but a modernized experience makes you have fun. Metroid: Samus Returns did everything right in this regard, and the joint effort between MercurySteam and Nintendo proved to be a fruitful one.
The 8-Bit Review
You can divide 3DS players predominantly into two groups: those who play with the 3D feature enabled, and those who religiously disable the 3D feature. Few toggle it on and off, from the positions I’ve read on the matter. I put myself in the first camp – the 3D effect is, to me, one of the most immersive features (or “gimmicks,” depending on what mood I’m in) in gaming, even beating out the Wii motion controls to go bowling.
While games released on the console within the past several year have been devoid of 3D support, including Hey! Pikmin, Pokémon Sun & Moon, and Super Mario Maker 3DS, Metroid: Samus Returns opted to not only add 3D support, but to make it look absolutely incredible. There are games that go overboard with the 3D support, adding too many layers of parallax which can serve to cause motion sickness with the 3D slider all the way up, but the degree to which they designed this game practically demands that the 3D be at least halfway enabled. Not that it’s unplayable without 3D, of course, but the first thing you will notice is the acute attention to detail that MercurySteam has paid while designing the luscious environments of Samus Returns. You’re simply missing out on the fine details playing with 3D mode disabled.
The bottom screen is used entirely for the map as well as displaying some key information – how many more Metroids you need to capture to open the next gate and lower the fluid, how many Metroids you need to destroy total, your health, Aeion charge, etc. It’s beautifully designed and allows the player to enjoy the pristine HUD-less top screen while using the second screen as an effective complimentary reference.
Of course, great visuals are one thing, but to truly capture the Metroid mood, you need good…
The soundtrack has always been lauded in the series, and Metroid: Samus Returns doesn’t break this trend. The audio work is subtle at times and more pronounced in others, yet always sets the mood as it should. There are some notable callbacks to previous installments, including that of the Metroid Prime series. You’ll be playing for a few minutes and then have a moment where you think, “hey, I’ve heard this before!”
As the tone in Metroid games is of utmost important, the soundtrack is responsible for complementing the visuals, and the feeling of loneliness and isolation is immediately felt by the player. This is especially true with headphones on! Please, take my advice, and play this game with a great pair of over-the-ear headphones. The 3DS speaker is not capable of much in the quality sense, and you’ll hear so much more depth to the soundtrack with a good pair of headphones than you will with cheap earbuds. Your ears will thank you for it!
The difference between a good soundtrack and a well-designed soundtrack is that while a good soundtrack simply sounds nice, a well-designed soundtrack can have you at the edge of your seat without even realizing it. Samus Returns switches musically back and forth between the subtle and the… not-so-subtle. Leading up to a boss fight, the music becomes quiet and ominous. Following a boss reveal, the music responds by getting the blood pumping. This call-and-repeat is a powerful use of audio to control the emotions of the player, and Samus Returns knows when to keep it low-key, and when to turn it up.
Whether you’re tearing down bosses or simply wandering around and searching for secrets, the score to Samus Returns always sets the mood to compliment your playing style.
As Metroid II had one primary focus, hunting down and killing Metroids, so too does Metroid: Samus Returns. Following a brief story segment explaining your mission, you find yourself in the shoes of Samus Aran, standing atop her ship, gorgeous environment fading endlessly into the background.
Much like other games in the series, this is one of the few times where you will be on the surface of the planet. Almost immediately you head into a nearby cavern, and begin your descent. Some tutorial text will appear for the first section, but what you’ll notice right away is just how familiar the control scheme already feels. Furthermore, it’s been simplified in some ways – the wall-jumping has been significantly improved, which really helps once you get your bearings with enemy dispatching and begin cruising through the levels. If you’ve played any 2D Metroid games, you know how finicky wall-jumping could to be. Luckily, it’s been mitigated in Samus Returns.
You’re almost immediately granted an opportunity to utilize the new melee counter-attack, and you quickly learn the “tell” that each enemy gives before it attacks, though all enemies have difference lengths of pre-attack animation.
The pride of the Metroid games has historically been the boss fights. Rarely straightforward and requiring focus to learn movesets and tells, Metroid: Samus Returns follows this trend and has managed to create some enjoyable boss fights. Of course, as the whole point of Samus’ being on SR388 is to destroy Metroids, you will be fighting many identical creatures. While the bulk of the game is designated to tracking down and exterminating the same floating Metroids which can normally be dispatched in less than 30 seconds, there are some mega-bosses that will require determination and a good bit of patience. The basic Metroids that you will track down are fairly simple battles, but Metroid: Samus Returns has some more tricks up its sleeve.
These tricks come in the form of evolutions of the original Alpha Metroids: Gamma, Zeta, and, Omega Metroids. Each one more deadly than the last, throughout the evolutions, more skills are unleashed against Samus. The ability to fly and crawl on ceilings, send down rocks from above, and launch full-on laser attacks make each battle epic.
There is a particularly annoying breed of Metroid battle, however, and that is the constantly escaping Gamma Metroid. Once you’ve sufficiently wounded him (or her?) he will crawl away, forcing you to give chase. Although I do appreciate the design of the boss levels and how you never really have to follow your footsteps backwards, this seemed to break the flow of the battle and reminded me too much of Monster Hunter, in which chasing wounded bosses was the bane of the gameplay.
Beneath all of these boss battles are really only a handful of total battles, but they don’t overstay their welcome. Generally speaking, they’re usually quite short. What they do well is utilize Samus’ ever-growing arsenal of attacks and tools, and throughout the game they do get easier. This constant reminder that you are getting stronger is a central part of the appeal of Metroid in my opinion, and Samus Returns handled it wonderfully. While having many repeated bosses can be looked upon as a weakness, I think the lore of Metroid II holds up in supporting the decision to stick to many duplicate boss fights. This is a remake, after all.
The minute-to-minute enjoyment factor of Samus Returns kept this reviewer playing daily and will hold the attention of players through to the end. If you’re a completionist, or at the very least, you just enjoy collecting things, it’s relaxing to explore SR388 and seek out all of the upgrades. Using the Scan Pulse to find secret areas paired with an in-game counter of how many upgrades you still need to find in each area makes finding all of the upgrades in the game a real treat.
The overall vibe of Samus Returns is captured in this joint effort between Nintendo and MercurySteam, and if you enjoy exploration, collecting upgrades, and shooting bad guys with laser cannons, you’ll have a blast on SR388.
I’d argue that while the bosses in Samus Returns can be downright frustrating at times, they are always fair. They have their move sets and it’s up to the player to master each boss before they are allowed to move forward in the story.
Of course, it’s hard to mark down Challenge too many points due to the inclusion of Hard mode, as well as Fusion mode. Disregard for a minute the fact that Fusion Mode is locked behind the Metroid amiibo, both of these difficulties provide a supreme amount of challenge. Upon my 100% completion of the Normal difficulty mode, I scanned my amiibo and started Fusion mode immediately. Mark my words when I tell you I was unable to get more than 15 minutes into the game before having to calmly rest my 3DS on its stand, and go do something else.
Veterans of the series will find themselves quick to adapt to the minute-to-minute gameplay, but perhaps a little slow to master Samus’ newest adventure. A lot of the challenge regardless of your difficulty level comes from the newly added feature of the melee counter-attack. Getting used to each enemy takes time and patience, and you will take tons of damage initially until you have them figured out. The placement of enemies is also no accident – jumping through areas quickly and avoiding enemies is rather tough to pull off. In previous installments, jumping around and evading enemies was usually a decent method of staying alive – in Samus Returns, you’ll quickly learn that brute-forcing Samus through the environments will result in a lot of low-health warnings and early deaths.
The precision controls paired with all of these new abilities make Metroid: Samus Returns a worthy contender for the tightest Metroid game yet. It’s tough to match the precision input of the GameBoy Advance, but MercurySteam did a tremendous job of inspiring confidence when it comes to controlling Samus. Samus Returns also marks the first time a 2D Metroid game is controlled without the precision of a D-pad, but the analog stick does a great job of keeping Samus moving where you want her to move, with very little accidental input.
Controlling Samus starts off easy enough and the new features are immediately easy to use, with free aiming bound to the L-button and joystick, and X to melee counter. By the end of the game you will be an absolute beast of muscle-memory as you jump all over the screen to take out the bosses that will no doubt put the hurt on you. The 3DS isn’t exactly the most ergonomic handheld device out there, and I’m no stranger to getting cramps, but it really works and you almost have to trust your own instincts.
There are some touch screen controls, although controlling is done primarily with all of the buttons, excluding the ZL and ZR buttons on the New 3DS. Touching the screen anywhere will send Samus into Morph Ball mode, and this is probably the extent to which most will utilize the touch screen itself.
On the whole, the controls work and they work well – by definition the game is accessible in the sense that it’s easy to pick up and play. Where you may run into some issues is dependent upon the size of your hands. I found that after a few boss fights, or around an hour, my hands would cramp up pretty badly. If you have the option to get one, I’d recommend playing with a larger grip to make longer playing sessions possible. Five minutes into the Diggernaut fight and you’ll be thanking yourself for it.
This is a direct remake of Metroid II: Return of Samus. As such, there is some very light story, but not much more than a set up at the beginning of the game. Why is Samus here? Why do I need to kill all these Metroids? These questions are answered pretty much right off the bat.
I’m not particularly fond of very deep storytelling, and that may coincide with why I enjoy the Metroid franchise so much. If you’re reading this and haven’t played the game, know that this is not the storytelling experience you’re looking for. If you’re reading this and have played a Metroid game, you already know that narrative has never really been a strong suit within these games.
Other games in the series, in particular Metroid Prime, have approached story as optional – scanning items would grant you the ability to fill out a compendium of knowledge known as Lore, which would give you blurbs describing the history of the Chozo race and beyond. There isn’t a feature like this, however, in Metroid: Samus Returns, and I think a small addition of some optional lore could have benefited fans of the genre who may crave more in the way of background information.
Giving fair credit where it is due, while there isn’t any in-game lore to discover, depending on whether or not the player meets certain conditions during gameplay, you can unlock special artwork, accessible via the main menu. These “Chozo Memories” show various elements from the storyline and may feed the story-hungry player.
There are many Metroidvanias out there. To be honest, I’m almost sick of hearing that phrase, since any game where you jump a lot and collect things seems to bear that label. It’s become so ubiquitous that I feel games are labeled as such by default, and gaming news outlets must scramble around trying to explain why it isn’t one. But there is something special about Metroid games that fans of the series understand. It’s not even a level of polish, although the polish is extremely high as with anything Nintendo produces. It’s the total package – it’s all the great things about the games in the series that come together to make it a perfect gaming experience.
Metroid: Samus Returns is more unique than a lot of the Metroidvanias out there, even as a remake. That’s how well made this game is. The addition of melee attacks, the modernization of shooting a weapon in all directions on a 2D plane, the fact that you have so many moves you will be struggling to maintain your grip on your 3DS during boss fights while your heart feels like it’s going to beat right out of your chest – that is the unique experience of Metroid: Samus Returns. That is what you’re paying money for. There’s no experience like a Metroid experience.
Now as far as those Metroid experiences go, is this a unique one? I’d give a resounding “yes.” Much in the same way that The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds reimagined the world of The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past while adding modern improvements along the way, Metroid: Samus Returns does the same justice to the game upon which it is based. It stands alone as a unique experience on the Metroid timeline.
My Personal Grade: 9/10
To be very clear, I grew up playing Super Metroid, and never had the patience for the NES installment. In the middle of last year, I played AM2R and was convinced that it was the perfect remake of a game I had never played. MercurySteam and Nintendo did a tremendous job working together to bring a very challenging game to 2017. For that, I think they should be applauded. Not only does it keep the vibe of Metroid games completely intact, but the sheer amount of detail that went into this game showed that both sides approached it with the love and care that the franchise deserves.
While you may favor AM2R over Samus Returns, or even (gasp!) the original Metroid II: Return of Samus if you’re some sort of masochist, a few minutes spent in this joint-effort title is enough to see that it’s deserving of all the praise it gets.
Aggregated Score: 8.0
The Over-Caffeinated Nostalgia Mage loves video games, getting nostalgic for the 90s, and his beautiful wife who may or may not be standing right behind him. You can read more words written by him over at his blog Nostalgia Trigger.
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Categories: Game Review