Review: Metroid: Samus Returns

 A return to form for Samus Aran.

Console: Nintendo Switch

That Nintendo was launching its brand new console, the Switch, back in 2017 didn't mean that the company dropped the Nintendo 3DS. That console would limp on for another 3 years before they officially declared it dead. No, back in 2017 Nintendo was still uncertain if the hybrid Switch would be another success like the Wii or a failure like the Wii U. They kept supporting the Nintendo 3DS with a variety of new titles. The Nintendo Switch was a success however, a runaway success even, and that caused the 3DS and all of those new titles to get completely overshadowed. I already took a look at one such game, Ever Oasis, a few months ago and now it's time for another: Metroid: Samus Returns. 

Metroid is one of Nintendo's oldest franchises, debuting on the NES in 1986, but unlike its brothers Mario and Zelda it never quite caught on. It's popular, sure, but in the grand scheme of things, it's still a bit of a niche game. As such, the Metroid franchise doesn't really have that many games under its belt. Metroid: Samus Returns is a remake of Metroid II: Return of Samus, and is the first (non-spin-off) Metroid game in 7 years and the first 2D side-scroller Metroid in 13 years. Yeah. So, how does this modern take on an old classic hold up? Is it proof that the series that helped birth an entirely new game genre, the 'Metroidvania' still has potential today? Or, is it the perfect argument for why the series has lied dormant for so many years?

Both, actually. Let's dive in.

In Metroid: Samus Returns you are Samus Aran (shocking I know) intergalactic bounty hunter and mercenary. You're tasked by the Galactic Federation to exterminate all Metroids on the planet SR388. Metroids are an unnatural, dangerous species that Samus has encountered before and one that forms a threat to all living beings in the entire galaxy. After arriving on SR388, Samus not only finds a population of Metroids but also the signs of a long-lost civilization. It's up to Samus to find and kill all 40 Metroids but also try to uncover the secret behind SR388's lost civilizations.

That's basically all she wrote for the story. It really isn't much when you get down to it, just a basic setup. It's indicative of the 'Metroidvania' genre and the time the original game was made in. There just wasn't as much of a story push for games back then. Not a critique, just something I felt you needed to know.

Let's dig into the gameplay first. The gameplay itself is very simple. You explore SR388 and its expansive cave system in search of the Metroids encounter enemies, obstacles and collectables throughout. Samus's basic actions consist of running, jumping and gunning. The controls are easy and tight. This game also adds in a counter that, when performed at the correct moment, will knock the enemy back and temporarily stun them allowing you to do quite a bit of damage. Finding new paths to take, figure out how to do tricky jumps and take down enemies is a lot of fun. It even has a bit of an addictive quality to it: whenever I failed I always wanted to jump right back in and get it right this time around. After getting a bit more familiar with the game that is. 

One of the problems this game has is that it's too unforgiving. Metroidvania's are always on the more difficult side of things, it's in their nature so to speak. They're always more challenging and restricting at the beginning getting 'easier' to further get into it but Metroid: Samus Returns isn't balanced enough when it comes to this. Very precise jumps, a low window for countering and a lack of explanation make it so that the early hours, when you're not used to the game yet, can be rather frustrating. Lots of game-overs that I didn't understand, lots of enemy patterns that I did not see and thus could not win from etc. Veterans or players who have played a Metroidvania before won't really have this problem. Newcomers will.

Countering an enemy attack is an integral part of the gameplay and oh so satisfying to pull off.

Speaking of the bosses, they are a lot of fun. While they are a bit repetitive, and can again take a while to figure out their pattern, once you do they are a blast. The Metroids progress throughout your adventure. The deeper you make your way inside of SR388 you'll encounter larger, stronger variants. Each variant has its own pattern, their own 'puzzle' to solve. Getting there can, again, be frustrating but that makes the moment that you finally figure it out that much more rewarding. The none Metroid bosses are the highlight for me. They are less repetitive and a nice change of pace. They can really challenge you, require much more strategy and are visually interesting. I was always excited when I came across them.

The boss fights are also a lot more action-packed and 'cinematic' then I thought it would be. There are multiple in-engine cutscenes in the game and when you successfully counter a boss you will enter a cinematic of sorts. Samus will jump and flip around the enemy while you get to launch a barrage of attacks. This adds a very cool visual element to the fight as well giving them a little more flair.

Over the course of the game, you'll find many upgrades that will expand on these basic actions. The morph-ball allows you to detract into a ball and get into small spaces, the ice-beam gives you freeze shots etc. You also other tools, like a scanner, as well as your standard health and energy meter upgrades. Part of a Metroidvania game is that you start out with nothing and work your way up, getting much better equipment throughout your adventure. It makes for a rewarding progression. Each time that you'll find a new tool you can start experimenting with what it does. You can find new ways to defeat enemies or open up a previously unexplorable part of the map. 

The side-story involving SR388 lost civilization is locked behind the amount of exploration, AKA backtracking, but the game doesn't tell you this. I didn't even know that this entire side-story even existed until I had already finished the game and started doing the research for this review! This made the amount of backtracking in the game feel more pointless then it actual is, which is already a bit much if you ask me. Again, people who have played a Metroid and/or Metroidvania before won't know about this, thus miss out on this part of the game.

Lastly, there are the graphics and music. The graphics look really good and, considering the limitations of the hardware, are impressive. The models look great and are well animated, the colours are nice and vivid and the environments and backgrounds are packed with detail. When it comes to the latter they're not even static as one might suspect. Large creatures are moving in the background, slabs of stone falling etc. Nice attention to detail that makes SR388 feel much more 'alive' so to speak.

When it comes to music, the game really doesn't have much of it. What I mean by this is that there are only a handful of tracks in the game. You've to go the opening, some boss tracks and that's it. The rest is all ambience and it works really well. It sets the mood and the atmosphere of the game perfectly. A wide variety of bombastic music tracks really wouldn't have worked here, wouldn't have fit the game's atmosphere. The balance it now strikes between the more traditional tracks and the ambience works in giving the game the proper mood as well as some memorable more traditional tracks.

The cut-scenes also give you a change to take a good look at all the different type of Metroids. This one, the Gamma Metroid, is the ugliest one in my opinion. I mean, that's a face only a mother could love!

Conclusion

Metroid: Samus Returns is a remarkable little game with its fair share of problems. Like I said in the opening, it's both a testament to the series strengths and weaknesses. It's strong in that it has solid gameplay, tight controls, a true sense of reward and progression and is both visually and auditory pleasing. It shows the weaknesses in that's on the unforgiving, 'figure it out yourself', side and has maybe a bit more backtracking then is really manageable. If you're new to the series or genre, these last points will definitely lead to some frustrating moments early on. The farther you get into the game, however, these problems start to fade as you get more familiar with the game.

All in all, Metroid: Samus Returns is a good game that I can recommend anyone. Just, beware that if this is your first Metroid or Metroidvania game those opening hours might be a bit rough.

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