EVAN GRIFFIN OCTOBER 22, 2021
Nintendo / Mercury Steam
When you think of what a Metroid game is supposed to be, what do you think of?
Many people will throw around buzz words like “isolation”, “open-ended”, “atmospheric” or “dreadful” with occasional allusion to the Alien film franchise somewhere to convey the general aesthetic.
What do people consider, however, when presented with a different question: What defines a Metroidvania? This is harder to answer, and in the decade since the release of Metroid Other M, the conversation has grown louder in the video game space. Titles like Hollow Knight, Dark Souls, Blasphemous, The Messenger, Axiom Verge, and Ori are packed with mechanical homages to the two franchises of the Metroidvania namesake, but with their own twists which have completely redefined the “search-action” genre. Yes, players get lost, they can collect things out of order, they encounter boss fights – maybe sometimes a fair bit too early thanks to open-ended progression design – but they all share the crescendo of building power.
The main character begins in a lonely dangerous environment that tunnels them into being thwarted by simple enemies and obstacles, only to grow more powerful the further they go. By the time they reach the end game and steadily master the basics, they’re ready to dominate the terrain, find every secret in the corners of the map, and take on the most challenging bosses. Metroid for NES and Super Metroid for Super Nintendo laid a blueprint for this, and in the series absence, those foundations have branched out and evolved so much that, for a while, Metroid felt all but forgotten except by its most faithful fans.
Nintendo / Mercury Steam
With the release of the mysterious, long thought to be canceled Metroid Dread this year for Nintendo Switch, Madrid developer Mercury Steam clearly knew what needed to be done with the historic sci-fi franchise. The resulting effort, hopefully, puts the adventures of Samus Aran in a place that can help the series, and its fanbase, thrive, rather than fight for survival.
Metroid Dread does so much with its story details as rewards for fans, but it’s the gameplay that allows Dread to excel the most. Mercury Steam proves they understand the series’ best elements with the remake of Metroid II (1991) in Samus Returns (2017) on 3DS. While that project was imperfect mostly due to restrictions of the hardware it was developed on, the game successfully added much-needed quality of life updates to compete with the modern market. In it, Samus could melee counter enemies, aim in 360 degrees, and use power-ups like the Aeon abilities to make exploring the map less of a time sink and pace killer than past entries.
Dread takes those improvements for the console hybrid Nintendo Switch and polishes them immensely into an HD evolution of what makes Metroid shine. Samus can now counter mid-run with ease, move more coherently with stick controls, simple wall jumping timing, and a classic MegaMan style slide allows player traversal to keep a slick momentum up more than ever before. It also allows Mercury Steam to build the terrain of the new planet ZDR with different styles of puzzles and navigation restrictions than the series has ever had before. The result is a creative resurgence of iconic Metroid abilities from throughout the series but trickled to players in such a way that their desperate need for the Morph Ball comes as sweet relief instead of an obligatory acquisition.
New and old abilities, like Metroid Prime 2’s Seeker (now, Storm) Missiles and Fusion’s Diffusion Missiles get combined with new upgrades that completely transform 2D Metroid gameplay with moves like Flash Shift. More than any Metroid game before, these abilities stack in a way that bridges moments of gameplay together so seamlessly that they all feel equally useful in Samus’ arsenal. This is essential, as Metroid Dread also escalates boss fights into possibly the most challenging encounters the series has ever had.
Nintendo / Mercury Steam
Taking note from the indie scene, Metroid Dread understands that audiences have become equally acclimated to puzzling labyrinth maps of the genre as they have brutally challenging boss fights. Where in past games iconic bosses like Ridley were mere bullet sponges whose difficulty modulated based on how many upgrades were collected, now Metroid dips its toes into the roots of its peer series, Castlevania, as the player can have their true dexterity tested even with a maximum amount of health and ammo.
From the game’s first boss fight, players are required to learn patterns quickly by avoiding attacks which are both subtly and not-so-subtly telegraphed, and sneak in damage, even in the God Of War-esque cutscenes where Samus dances atop massive creatures, not just as quick time events with single button presses, but windows for players to sneak in extra damage and melt enemy health down as they get better and better with each attempt. And, yes, you will get better.
Mercury Steam understands that not all Metroid or general Nintendo players might be used to this style of difficulty, and this is why you don’t need to backtrack from a save point, as was tradition to the series, and kept bosses from being too aggressive for a long time. Now, you get quick loading checkpoints and an encouraging screen that reminds you “No Attack is Unavoidable”: a message from the developers that, if you pay attention, you can win, maybe even without getting hit.
While that makes Dread possibly not as relaxing for Metroid fans replaying and refining their runs of the past 20 years on Prime, Super, and the rest, it makes for absolutely exhilarating battles, and possibly some of the best the series has to offer and is sure to make the speedrunning scene all the tenser down the road.
As always, a Metroid game is not measured by quantity but by its quality. As the first HD Metroid game, it perfectly builds a 2D environment from 3D assets to buff out the world’s design, and where it lacks in music as iconic as past games it makes up for in stunning variety in its environments that homogenize together to make planet ZDR feel less segmented, and convey constant change from the threats in its deep, dark caverns.
The game’s map feels absolutely massive, and players will spend a lot of time getting lost, but Mercury Steam has added more quality of life updates in this respect as well: ZDR’s map shows you the connecting points between regions, pulsing grey zones with hidden upgrades yet to be discovered, teleporters and easy ways to distinguish upgrades collected from those yet to be acquired. There are now markers to set and follow on the mini-map, and even an item percentage collection per zone, now made standard instead of a completion reward.
The zones feel less and less intimidating as players adapt, thanks to Samus moving faster than ever, and players will be incentivized to keep moving as they encounter the absolutely terrifying successor to Metroid Fusion’s main enemy in the form of EMMI robots, hunter robots that stalk Samus and kill her in one kit. There are only seven throughout the game, but their presence is massive, and the players will need to rush to find a singular upgrade that can take them down, and even that is heart-drummingly exhilarating to allow these deadly machines to get too close. When Samus gets tapped by them, players get an elusive chance to counter and stun them, and even an experienced player can’t sync the timing on it perfectly.
For the first time since Super Metroid, sequence breaking to a more extreme extent is designed deliberately and plays into why this franchise is one that supersedes replayability for the sake of rewards. Metroid Dread, just as all the others of its namesake is one that players will be coming back to over and over for many years refining the way they play to get better, and the time of their runs shorter. A first playthrough, with the methodical scouring of the map’s seven areas to collect 100% of items, can clock upwards of 12 hours, not counting idle time on the map or reloading checkpoints for boss encounters. Already, though, the speedrunning community has achieved efficiency to cut times down to a breezy 90 minutes, and more than ever before, getting a sub-4-hour run of a Metroid game feels approachable for casual completionists.
Nintendo and Mercury Steam understand this desire to work as efficiently as Samus herself, as they approach sequence breaking by even giving players visual rewards in secret cutscenes for alternate methods in boss fights which can only be done by collecting items out of intended order, as well as through Samus’ characterization in cutscenes, coming across more like a superpowered anime hero than ever before, and the places that the story takes her are both rewarding for fans and tantalizingly insane for new players, as it keeps a reverence for a 35-year story canon, and upends the conventions of it all at the same time, just as the game does with its gameplay.
Metroid Dread is a triumphant return of one of video games’ greatest iconic series and of its main character, Samus Aran. Its sudden arrival and its marked quality feels like a visitation from a dark dimension where everything, despite nearly 20 years of radio silence, went absolutely right.