Isn’t it strange to think that Metroid: Samus Returns was announced at this year’s E3. After waiting what felt like forever for a new 2D take on this much loved franchise, we were finally going to get one in a few short months. But wait…..it’s a remake of the little know, Metroid II: Return of Samus on the Game Boy? And it’s being made by MercurySteam whose last two games, lest we forget, were the hugely disappointing, Castlevania: Lords of Shadow 2 and Castlevania: Lords of Shadow – Mirror of Fate? Hmmm, suddenly, things weren’t sounding so rosy, and with the last mainline Metroid release (i.e. not Federation Force) being the mechanically decent but much maligned Metroid: Other M, I quickly found my initial joy turning to troubled apprehension. Was this to be another disappointment or would, as the title suggests, Samus really return?
Luckily for all concerned, Metroid: Samus Returns proves the return to form that we were all hoping for. The title might be similar and it may take the fundamental structure of the Game Boy original, but other than that, this really is an all new game. It also happens to be arguably the finest 2D Metroid game since Super Metroid. That is up for debate of course, but the fact that it’s in the conversation at all speaks volumes for the quality of MercurySteam’s exceptional take on the template.
Despite the introduction of a new developer, this is a pure Metroid experience. A few bells and whistles have been added to give it a somewhat unique feel, but for the most part, this is a very traditional take on the series. It might lack the exceptional level design or unnerving sense of dread that made Super Metroid so special, but when my only major criticism is that it isn’t as good as one of the best video games ever made, then you have to say that Nintendo and MercurySteam have done their job.
Those concerned by the chatty nature of recent Metroid releases will be glad to hear that storytelling and traditional narrative have been all but abandoned here. Samus has no weird daddy issues and there are no annoying soldiers barking orders at her. Other than a brief written introduction, Samus Returns is utterly devoid of story. There is some environmental storytelling, but that’s about it.
Sadly, while I am more than happy to see Samus return to her mute roots, this aspect of the experience is also the games’ weakest element. Unlike Metroid Prime which has the scanner and an abundance of Chozo-lore, or Super Metroid which, while structurally similar, does a great job of telling a story through its memorable surroundings, Samus Returns can feel a tad bland by comparison. Perhaps it’s the 3DS’ aging hardware, but the visuals are a tad muddy and the world a little repetitive. It never looks actively unpleasant, but the visual design of each level can get somewhat samey, and with little in the way of finer details, fails to build up any real sense of place.
Still, while Samus Returns might not be the most visually arresting game is the series, that’s not to say that it doesn’t look good in its own right. The 3D, something of a lost art, adds a real sense of depth to the world while the exceptional animations make this one of the most fluid and athletic takes on Samus yet. The game could certainly do with a bit more variety (that goes for enemies and environments), but what is here looks good. As good as it might look though, it’s obviously limited by the technical limitations of the 3DS, and it’s hard not to imagine how much better it would look on the Switch. It might seem like a churlish complaint given the announcement of Metroid Prime 4, but honestly, this game would look great on the Switch’s fantastic hi-def display.
Any issues you might have with the visuals or the platform of choice are soon forgotten once you get into the game itself though. With its slick mechanics and fantastic powerups, Samus Returns proves an addictive and beautifully crafted experience. The level design throughout is exceptional, and while some may bemoan the relatively quick doling out of Samus’ abilities, I found them perfectly-paced and expertly implemented. The structure of the experience (namely, kill all of the Mertroids in each area) can get a tad repetitive, but when basic traversal and combat is as enjoyable as it is here, the reasoning behind it soon becomes largely inconsequential. A more meaningful sense of progression wouldn’t have harmed, but if there was a game that encouraged progression for progressions sake, it’s Metroid.
If this game is a conceptually old-school Metroid experience, so too is the level of difficulty. It starts of gently enough, but by area 3, the challenge soon starts ramping up with an abundance of enemies and environmental threats eager to take you down. Along with the enemies and surroundings, the complexity of your own abilities begins to increase exponentially. They are all straight forward enough individually, but as you move deeper into the game, you’ll soon finding yourself combining your myriad abilities and power-ups to take down the increasingly pesky foes dotted about the world.
Luckily, MercurySteam and Nintendo have made one major but hugely successful design concession for Samus Reurns that makes the whole experience much more manageable…..and fun. The introduction of a highly powerful counter-attack might be a move too far to purists, but in practice, it adds an extra dimension to combat. Some may also find the new ‘Aeion’ abilities a bit overpowered (especially the one that shows up hidden routes and breakable walls), but for the most part, these additional abilities reduce the chance of frustration, and in many cases, make the core gameplay more immediate and enjoyable.
With a huge amount of content, fantastic core mechanics and a decidedly old-school design ethic, Metroid: Samus Returns proves the welcome return to form that we had all been hoping for. It ultimately falls short of true greatness due to some slightly bland art design and an underlying sense of repetition, but these are relatively minor compaints for what is an otherwise exceptional game. Would I have preferred to see it on the Switch? Sure, but as is so often the case with Nintendo’s finest, gameplay is king, and so it proves here. Time to dust of that 3DS.
REVIEW CODE: A complimentary Sony Playstation 4 code was provided to Bonus Stage for this review. Please send all review code enquiries to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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