The bounty hunter is back.
Mario may have been the star of Nintendo's E3 2017 presentation, but the stoic bounty hunter Samus Aran stole the show. Nintendo broke the series out of semi-retirement by announcing not one, but two new Metroid titles at this year's expo: Metroid Prime 4 for Switch, and a traditional side-scrolling installment dubbed Metroid: Samus Returns for 3DS, the latter scheduled to arrive this September.
Samus's surprise return has been eagerly anticipated by fans for years; not only is it the first proper Metroid game since 2010's divisive Wii installment, Other M, it's also the first side-scrolling entry in the series since Zero Mission was released in 2004. Development on the title started roughly two years ago, following what Metroid producer Yoshio Sakamoto described as a fateful meeting with MercurySteam (developer of Castlevania: Lords of Shadow - Mirror of Fate). The Spain-based studio approached Nintendo with the idea to remake one of its classic games. After some enthusiastic discussions, the companies settled on Metroid's Game Boy installment, Return of Samus. Sakamoto was personally interested in revisiting the title as he wasn't originally involved in its development, and it seemed like the perfect choice for the project based on MercurySteam's experience with Castlevania.
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Samus Returns is not an exact remake of the original Metroid II, but a reimagining in the vein of Zero Mission, the Game Boy Advance retelling of the original Metroid. The basic premise remains the same: the Galactic Federation, realizing the deadly threat the life-sucking Metroids pose, orders Samus to eradicate the entire alien species. She touches down on the Metroids' homeworld, the planet SR-388, and begins her quest to eliminate every remaining Metroid from the galaxy. As in Zero Mission before it, the story is set up through a series of comic-like stills, adding a bit more narrative framework to your expedition.
From the outset, the most noticeable change in Samus Returns comes in the game's visuals, which trade the spritework of previous 2D Metroid titles for polygonal characters and environments. While the new style may not seem particularly impressive on video, it's much more striking in person, especially with the handheld's 3D effects turned on; backgrounds appear much more cavernous by receding into the distance, giving the planet an eerier feel. And despite the move to 3D models, Samus is just as responsive and agile to control as she was in her 2D incarnations (though her Morph Ball seems to move with a bit more heft this time around).
As in the original Metroid II, your quest in Samus Returns is paced slightly differently than other Metroid titles. You still acquire power-ups and use the abilities they bestow to delve deeper into the planet's labyrinthine depths, but your progress is effectively tied to a Metroid counter; in the Game Boy title, exterminating a certain number of Metroids would cause the planet to quake and open up new areas to explore. Samus Returns replaces the Metroid counter with gates, though their purpose is effectively the same; slaying the number of Metroids depicted on a gate will drain the area of hazardous liquid and allow you to venture further into the planet.
That isn't the only difference in Samus Returns; Samus herself also has a number of new tricks in her repertoire to help exterminate the Metroids. While previous games limited you to firing at 45-degree angles, now you can freely aim your arm cannon around using the 3DS's Circle Pad, allowing for much greater precision. Samus's arsenal has also been expanded. In addition to traditional Metroid tools such as the Grapple Beam, you'll acquire a set of new Aeion upgrades that grant another unique clutch of abilities; one, the Scan Pulse, reveals breakable walls and hidden portions of the world. Another welcome addition is the ability to drop pins on the map to mark areas you want to revisit. This makes navigating the planet's complex layout much more manageable, as you no longer have to make mental notes of all the areas you'd like to explore later.
But the most unconventional addition to Samus Returns is the new melee attack. Outside of the more action-oriented Other M, Samus could never engage foes in hand-to-hand combat before; now, however, she can bash an enemy with her arm cannon by pressing the X button. This attack can be pulled off at any time, but it's most effective as a way to parry a charging monster. There's a strategic benefit to doing so as well; parry an incoming enemy at the right time and you'll follow up with a more powerful blast from your arm cannon that'll result in extra pickups. The first Metroid mutation you encounter hinges on this new skill; the alien attacks primarily by swooping in at Samus, and you have to parry at the right moment to expose its underside to a stream of missile blasts. Not only does this make battles feel more thrilling, it's integrated well into the gameplay, making what initially seems like an unorthodox mechanic for a Metroid game a natural addition to the series.
While our hands-on time with Metroid: Samus Returns was brief, the demo we played left us wanting to explore more. Like the best Metroid titles, Samus Returns integrates its new mechanics seamlessly into the gameplay, subtly teaching you how to use your new skills through visual cues and clever level design. Whether or not the final game will be worth the nearly decade-long wait will be seen when it arrives on September 15, but so far it certainly looks like a promising return for one of Nintendo's most respected franchises.