I'm not a diehard Metroid fan, but I am a fan. I don't play Super once a year or anything like that. I have played the original Metroid, Super, Zero Mission, Fusion, Other M, the Prime series, and Hunters (oh, and the DS pinball game as well), and I truly love the story of Samus. I just want to premise this review with that because, well, I know some so-called diehard fans will take issue with the changes of this game.
With that out of the way, I have to say, this is probably my favorite Metroid experience to date. No, it doesn't have the best story. As a matter of fact, it probably has the least storytelling of any game in the series, and honestly, that's maybe the one real knock I could levy against it. But in terms of straight-up gameplay, I think it's pretty much everything I ever wanted from a Metroid game.
Readers are likely already familiar with the updates and changes of Samus Returns versus the original Metroid II. I really just want to weigh in with my opinion. The free-aiming ability and how it works was so impactful that, after finishing the game I immediately tried to go back and replay Zero Mission, and I just couldn't do it. There's just no going back now. The controls here, and mainly the free-aim ability, are near- perfect. Zero Mission just felt so utterly clumsy after having played through this game.
Yes, this game could be summed up as just a trek to kill 40 Metroids, but saying that is really a disservice to what you actually get. I won't even pin it against the original in some attempt to justify its design. I think as a standalone game, handheld or otherwise, it's just a great game. The Metroids are the target, but it's the getting to them that really is the focus and star of the game. It's that basis that is what makes a great Metroid game for me.
And in terms of backtracking, this Metroid game is designed differently, as well. Backtracking is there, but this time around it's left as an extra reward to the player should they choose to retread roadblocks for upgrades that aren't necessary but may make the latter parts of the game slightly easier. Of course, there is a substantial story reward for players who do 100-percent the game.
Samus' movement is snappy and precise, the shooting and melee countering are completely satisfying, and though I have to admit, I was worried early on that the melee counter would become repetitive quickly, later areas of the game make it almost obsolete. The melee counter is a fun addition that doesn't overstay its welcome.
As with any Metroid game, you'll (re)gain abilities and upgrades the further you progress through the environment. However, I think this game does one of the best jobs of making each and every upgrade and ability relevant throughout the entire game, sans most cannon upgrades, which overlap. Abilities you get early on will still be vital late game in order to make it past certain obstacles.
The new Aeion abilities are also expertly integrated into the game. You'll gain four abilities, but it's probably the Scan Pulse that has fans the most worried. Honestly, though it does point out areas of the environment where you can progress, it offers no indication of what's actually needed to do so. I won't lie, it is still a divisive change in how players will work out 100-percent completion, but I personally don't think it makes the game easier per se.
With all the love I'm showering upon the game, there are one or two issues I did have. For one, the grapple beam: It works great, it often feels great, but there are a few areas of the game where you need to traverse lava or acid going from one grapple point right to another, and the mechanic doesn't always work as it should. Often I'd find myself falling right into lava and taking damage because my aim was off. In other games with similar mechanics, those kinds of sections usually lock you into the animation, and honestly, I think the same should have been done here. Free-aim simply isn't needed or practical for those types of sections.
Also, somewhere toward the middle of the game, in one area in particular, you get something, like, three or four upgrades in a row, and it kind of throws the pacing off a bit -- it did for me at least. It feels a bit like Christmas when your grandparents shower you with a ton of presents all at once and you can't really appreciate any of them.
Lastly, the story elements, or lack thereof.
I think Samus Returns actually feels quite complete and enjoyable in what it does, but what would have sent it over the top for me in terms of being an excellent Metroid experience is if they'd placed artifacts in the environment like they did throughout the Prime series that help tell the story of SR388 (the planet this game takes place on). Rather than simply offering art stills that only hint at what might be in store, it would have been really satisfying to be rewarded throughout the game with bits of background story regarding the Chozo and their history with the Metroids.
Visually, the game's a stunner. I almost never play with the 3D on anymore, but after reading all the great things reviewers had to say about the effect here, I had to see what all the hoopla was about. It still took some getting used to at first, since I'm playing on an original 3DS, but it does look quite amazing. There's a lot of cool stuff going on in the backgrounds. The planet is truly alive, and though there are no artifacts to find along the way, the backgrounds tell a bit of story on their own.
And on that note, yes, on the O3DS the game runs smooth as butter. I have read from other folks on NeoGAF that they've experienced some slowdown on their systems, but I can't say I did myself. Now, during elevator and transporter scenes, the framerate definitely drops, but those are merely animations that attempt to hide the loading going on in the background. As for gameplay, I had no issues with the 3D turned on the entire way through, even during tense boss fights.
And there are some seriously intense bosses. Yes, there are 40 Metroids, evolving throughout the game, but you'll also be treated to some truly epic boss battles. You will die a lot, whether you're a complete newbie to the series or a seasoned veteran. Some folks feel the difficulty is too much and that Samus Returns is the most challenging in the series, but honestly, I felt it was just right. Yes, bosses do lop off ridiculous amounts of damage, but I never felt like it was used as a device to pad the game somehow.
Lest I forget to mention the sound design, I was completely satisfied. Others have complained the game is almost devoid of music, but I think Samus Returns is damned spot-on. Most sections offer only an eerie soundtrack that lingers in the background, with wonderfully ambient sounds from the creatures that stir there. Other areas ramp up the tension with sentimental favorites from past games.
Metroid: Samus Returns is absolutely fantastic. It does so much with so little. Yes, there are only a handful of creature designs, but as you make your way through the environment, they evolve along the way (which makes sense and doesn't interfere in any way with the game's design or take away from the overall experience). The focus never strays from the simple mission of "Defeat all the Metroids." The journey there and back is utterly satisfying with no lulls, very little repetition, and though it's all built upon a lean frame, it's a design that also keeps from bogging the game down with unnecessary filler. It's a Metroid game through and through, only bigger and more bad-ass.