Quick question for the audience: who in Ridley’s name asked for Metroid Prime: Federation Force? Better yet, who hear the pitch for it and thought, “That sounds like a wonderful idea. Let’s give it the green light. Because Metroid is all about cooperative shooting. It’s what the world wants.” And that’s not to say I’m opposed to change or experimentation within a series, but after the backlash following Other M, you’d think Nintendo would take a step back and carefully consider their approach to their next game in the Metroid series. Evidenced by the title, Metroid: Samus Returns (MSR) is a symbolic return to form for the series, for better and worse. It’s a throwback in all senses of the word, and the result is a solid but mostly unremarkable adventure.
As a remake of the often panned Metroid II: Return of Samus for the original Gameboy, this title seemingly came out of nowhere. That game took a very different approach to gameplay compared to its predecessor. Instead of simply exploring a planet and wiping out bosses, you were tasked with hunting down a certain amount of Metroids on the planet SR388. Story wise, they were invading the planet and were nigh unstoppable due to their penchant for draining the energy out of anything and everything. This task remains unchanged in MSR; right from the get go you are told you have 40 Metroids to eliminate. You go through each area hunting them down before you’re able to move on.
Typically, in any kind of Metroidvania game, you’re limited in exploration in the beginning. You’re weak, lacking the abilities you need to find all the upgrades and hidden paths, and in this game it’s no different. Samus starts off with the basic power beam and the ability to counter enemy attacks and fire in any direction (more on that in a bit). Eventually, you get classic abilities like the Morph Ball, charge beam, and more and using these abilities allows you to access previously unreachable areas. There’s a curious thing about the way this game is structured, though.
See, in other games in the genre, backtracking is as natural as breathing. You go back to a previous area in order to find a new one to explore and on the way to said new area, you can pick up some upgrades you missed the first time around. In this game, though, you’re constantly pushing forward. After finding a defeating the required amount of Metroids, you move on to the next Area (there are eight in total) and there’s never any reason to return to a previous Area unless you’re going for100% completion. This means you’re forced to choose between progressing the story and backtracking, which feels like a very strange choice.
That’s not to say this is inherently a bad thing- Metroid Fusion took a much more linear approach to progression, and that’s a fantastic game. But the thing is that that game had a pretty interesting story, as well as terrific enemy and environmental variety. In MSR, enemies remain largely unchanged throughout, instead opting for pallet swaps, and the environments all look the same. Remember how no two areas in Super Metroid felt the same? How each one felt like an entirely separate yet simultaneously connected part of a greater whole? There’s nothing like that here. Each Area has the same general color scheme with no real sense of change. Area 8 more or less feels the same as Area 1, just with stronger versions of enemies you’ve fought before.
Even though the environments are bland, it’s still fun to explore each one. There are numerous secret paths and upgrades hidden everywhere, as well as plenty of monsters to slay. Speaking of, combat has been revamped. Samus can now activate a counter attack that stuns an enemy and leaves them wide open for an easy kill. It’s a simple but oddly satisfying thing to perfectly counter an enemy and see them burst into health and ammo restores. Additionally, 360 degree aiming works very well. Holding the left shoulder button makes Samus stand still and you can use the circle pad to aim wherever you want. Because of these changes, enemies now hit harder and more aggressively than they did in past games. They will relentlessly attack you and take away big chunks of health, lending an airof danger to every encounter.
The Metroid fights in particular stand out, although I wish there was more variety. They evolve into gradually more powerful creatures as you progress, and the initial encounter with each type feels quite exhilarating. There’s also numerous ways to bring each type down, which is appreciated since you’ll be fighting several of each type. Mostly it boils down to dodging their attacks and waiting for an opening to counter and assault them with missiles. The game does a decent job of changing the type you fight just as the old one becomes grating, but I’d be lying if I said they didn’t wear on me after a while.
Also new to this game are Aeon abilities. You can collect four throughout the game, each with a different effect that’s useful for annihilating the competition. The first one you get, though, seems counter intuitive to the spirit of the series. It is a pulse that scouts out a certain chunk of the map around you. On the one hand, it’s handy for finding places you haven’t gone to yet, as well as locating vital upgrades. On the other, it does feel a bit like cheating at times, especially since the strongest element of Super Metroid was its open ended, exploration driven nature. It’s ultimately a small complaint, though, as Aeon abilities work very well, without feeling too powerful thanks to their limited supply (you have a meter that determines how much Aeon you have left).
Samus is indeed back in this installment. Everything about the classic gameplay is intact, from the upgrades down to the monsters you fight. At times, it almost feels like the developers played it too safe- I would have loved to see them get a bit more creative and expand the series lore and arsenal the way Fusion or Prime did. As it is, those looking for the Metroidvania formula and nothing more are sure to get a kick out of it. I personally enjoyed the ten hours I spent playing through it, but I finished it thinking it could have gone further in making it stand out like other games in the series do. I’m happy for Samus- the version we know and love- to return- lord knows gaming has missed her silent badassery and exploration based adventures. I just hope that the next game in the series pops with a bit more personality and life and has less repetitive objectives.
+ New combat mechanics are fun and worthwhile additions to Samus’s abilities
+ Finding hidden upgrades and paths is just as fun as in every other game in the series
+ Aeon abilities are fun to use
- Lack of variety in objectives, environments, and enemy design
- Structure doesn’t lend itself to natural backtracking