Metroid Dread has a lot to prove. We’re almost 20 years separated from Metroid Fusion, the fourth entry in the Metroid saga that has spanned one continuous 35 year arc. In the period since Metroid went dormant, the games industry has seen a seismic shift, as the style of non-linear action-adventure gameplay once pioneered by Super Metroid has become an entire genre unto itself, one dominated by smaller developers who have used the template to deliver some of the greatest games ever.
Dread not only has to prove that it still has something to bring to the genre its own series pioneered, but it also has to do so while being under intense scrutiny – scrutiny from Metroid fans, jilted as they are after a decade of disappointment frontended by arguably the most controversial major Nintendo release of all time in Other M. And scrutiny from those who wonder what a full priced 2D Metroidvania can truly do to justify its existence in a market where there are so many incredible titles to be had for a fraction of the price. After so long away from this series, and with Dread co-developed by a studio that has had a bumpy track record, the existential question that comes to mind is – can Nintendo actually still make a good Metroid game?
The answer is yes, yes they can, and yes they have. It is really rare to play a game that is as surefooted as Metroid Dread is. Metroid Dread is spectacular, a tour de force in all that Metroid has done well and in things it barely attempted before, both at once, and a culmination of three and a half decades of 2D Metroid, pulling from the best of every game that came before it to deliver a game that stands at the peak of the series and its genre. While there may be many who will prefer Super Metroid or Hollow Knight (and they have good enough reason to, those games are amazing), Dread at the very least breaks into the same company as those legendary stalwarts of the genre.
You wouldn’t know that this is a two decade belated sequel with this much baggage behind it – it puts its best foot forward to wow the player from the go, and then never lets up. It’s actually almost weird playing Metroid Dread – 2D AAA games aren’t exactly a common thing these days (no publisher except Nintendo really attempts them, and even Nintendo hasn’t put out a new one in the better part of a decade at this point), so it can actually take you by surprise with just how high end it is, and how clearly big budget the production values are. Dread looks amazing, running at a blistering (and, surprisingly, almost entirely steady) 60 frames per second, dripping with polish baked into its amazing visuals and incredible sound design, and a surprisingly cinematic flair that it uses to set the stakes for its story with some top notch storytelling that feels extremely unlike Nintendo.
"Metroid Dread is spectacular, a tour de force in all that Metroid has done well and in things it barely attempted before, both at once, and a culmination of three and a half decades of 2D Metroid, pulling from the best of every game that came before it to deliver a game that stands at the peak of the series and its genre."
That storytelling actually deserves credit – as mentioned previously, Metroid is actually one singular story running through the original Metroid game released 35 years ago, all the way through to Dread, which is the conclusion. And Dread does that heady duty of concluding the single longest running singular narrative arc in the medium justice. While most of the game is content to get out of the player’s way and let them explore the world at their own pace, there are multiple occasions when Dread goes all in on its storytelling.
These segments are excellent, with some impressive cinematics and thoroughly impressive characterization for series protagonist Samus Aran achieved almost entirely through her body language and animations. Where Other M once reduced Samus’ character to a collection of tropes that barely resembled the fearless and stoic bounty hunter players had come to love, Dread effortlessly and wordlessly rehabilitates her, turning her right back into the badass we know her to be.
Animations in the game in general deserve a lot of credit, because the staggering attention to detail that has gone into them is amazing. The fluidity of Samus’ movements, along with her reactions to the environments and enemies around her, really help sell not just the story and storytelling, but also the actual gameplay and how Samus engages with the new world she finds herself in – and ultimately, that last bit is, after all, what one plays a Metroid game for.
And what a world it is! Metroid Dread may be one of the greatest paced games of all time, and it achieves that almost entirely through its world design and nothing else. The game is a masterclass at gently guiding and funnelling the player through the critical path, while doing it so subtly that most players won’t even realize their decisions are being made for them. The world starts out relatively simple and linear, but as Samus amasses more and more of her abilities, it opens up like a piñata, offering a dizzying amount of options as to where to go. Each new area gets recontextualized by the new movement and combat options you have, making areas that may have felt inaccessible before – whether due to obstacles you couldn’t deal with, environmental considerations you couldn’t handle, mobility you were incapable of, or enemies you had no way of taking on – your playground.
This is an amazing map – definitely the biggest one in the series, and probably the most varied one as well, offering a whole gamut of environments, from forests, lava caverns, aquatic, subterranean, to some more imaginative ones that tie directly into the story and lore of the game and which are best discovered by the player for themselves. It spiders outwards and spirals in on itself, creating a maze of passages and caverns that can seem almost overwhelming at first – I know the first time I saw the map of just the first area, I felt taken aback – but then making it feel almost effortless to traverse and navigate it, as Samus Aran slowly masters the world around her and regains the peak of her powers.
While it starts out by being fairly guided, always nudging the player in the right direction, the deeper into what ZDR has to offer you get, the more sprawling it gets, and the more it rewards the player who is willing to let their curiosity get the best of them and use their powers in areas and ways that the game may not have explicitly told them to. The power ups you get in Metroid Dread never get as wildly imaginative as in some other games in the genre, but their execution and implementation in the world is so sublime and unusual in and of itself that it more than makes up for that.
Metroid Dread is actually of the same school of design as Super Mario Odyssey or The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild are, in that it places player agency paramount and centerstage. This is a game with a lot of respect for the player, and it empowers that player to figure things out for themselves, and then reward them for it. Sequence breaking is built into the very DNA of Metroid Dread, and you can end up doing things out of order, or in ways that you would never expect would work – but that the developers had already accounted for, and end up rewarding you for. That it manages to do this while still guiding the players who might actually need more concrete direction is incredible – it’s a very fine needle to thread, and few games manage to do it successfully. Even fewer manage to do it as well as Metroid Dread does.
"This is a game with a lot of respect for the player, and it empowers that player to figure things out for themselves, and then reward them for it. Sequence breaking is built into the very DNA of Metroid Dread, and you can end up doing things out of order, or in ways that you would never expect would work – but that the developers had already accounted for, and end up rewarding you for."
A large amount of credit for this has to go to the sheer QoL functionality Dread is packing, most of which is built into its in-game map. This is, without doubt, the best mapping system in any Metroidvania game ever. It maps out the expanses and borders of every place you go to, identifies power ups you haven’t picked up, identifies what kind of barrier stops you from getting those power ups (if any), labels the specific power up you need to get past that barrier once you have it, lets you isolate roadblocks and obstacles that can be cleared with a certain power up (to let you figure out where to go next after you get a new upgrade), lets you set markers that constantly display on your minimap and help you orient yourself without needing to repeatedly open up the full map, and, perhaps most importantly – forces absolutely none of this on you.
If you don’t want or need this information, you can ignore all of it. If you just want to explore the world at your own pace, without needing anything even resembling overt guidance on where you might be expected to be next, you can literally never open up the map and you’ll be fine. Dread’s world is incredibly well designed, and other than a couple of occasions, manages to intuitively telegraph what it expects from the player effortlessly. The map is for those who need or want it – and those who do will find it to be a potent tool to add to their arsenal.
The actual act of exploring Planet ZDR is a joy. No Metroid game ever has controlled better than Dread does, and that is saying something, because this series includes Zero Mission, which is considered by many to be among the best controlling games of all time. It’s a joy to simply move as Samus, especially once more of her classic movement options get unlocked. I won’t name all of them here, but the combination of things such as the speed boost, the shine spark, the space jump, and the grapple (all of which return), alongside new movement options such as the ability to phase great distances horizontally, make for a game where the simple act of movement is pleasurable.
Combat holds up its end of the bargain too – Metroid games have traditionally never really emphasized combat. Even the first person Metroid Prime games completely deemphasized combat and kept the focus squarely on exploration. This changed when MercurySteam took over the series and gave us Samus Returns, which put a lot of focus on combat by giving Samus new abilities (such as a melee counter and a 360º free aim), and pairing it with some of the most demanding enemies in the series. Metroid Dread continues down this road, and delivers the most exacting and tense combat the series has seen – and indeed, some of the best combat in this genre, period.
The 360º free aim and the melee counter both return (though the latter now doesn’t need you to stop moving and bait the enemy into a parry, and can be used while moving), alongside a frankly ridiculous arsenal of firepower that Samus slowly regains over the course of the game. These abilities can also be used in conjunction with Samus’ movement options (such as the aforementioned phasing ability), which allows for some of the most kinetic combat the series has seen.
It’s good that Samus has so much firepower, because she will really need it in ZDR. Metroid Dread is an incredibly difficult games. Enemies hit hard, and while you’re unlikely to die via regular trash mobs, when it comes to the bosses, you’re in for a whole lot of pain.
These bosses are amazing – some of the best designed bosses in the genre, with some incredible movesets and encounter design that puts the player’s mastery of combat and movement abilities to an exacting test. Bosses hit hard, and they punish any sloppiness on the player’s part, meaning that if you’re not paying attention, you will die. And die a lot. Honestly, you’re probably going to be dying a lot anyway.
In spite of how hard bosses hit, and how much damage they can take, they never feel unfair, and this comes down to a lot of things. One is the very simple fact that each boss telegraphs its own attacks and openings very clearly and distinctly. A lot of the challenge in these fights is down to understanding how the boss will attack, when a certain attack is coming, and how that can be avoided or countered. As you understand the patterns, you slowly find yourself getting further into the fight on every single try – visible progress that makes it clear that you’re not just banging your head against a wall, and that you’re actually getting somewhere.
"That this masterclass in mechanical prowess and game design is backed up by some surprisingly high production values (of the kind you never expect in a 2D game in this day and age) only helps to pull Metroid Dread together into a superlative package."
The challenge is also kept really fair by the game’s excellent checkpointing. Metroid Dread has amazing checkpointing, meaning that when you die, you start almost exactly where you left off. This means that dying to a boss, for example, doesn’t knock you back to an old save point, and doesn’t require you to repeat an area of the game you have already gotten through. Unlike so many other challenging games, both within and outside this genre, Dread doesn’t want to waste your time repeating content you clearly already mastered, it wants you to try your hand at the skill check you are failing until you become better enough to be able to take it on and triumph. This means that when you die, you jump back in exactly where you did with no downtime. This takes the sting out of your deaths – the game over screen barely registers as an inconvenience, when you can jump right back in and resume where you left off, after all.
Between the abilities at Samus’ disposal, and the QoL on offer, Dread manages to be an extremely tough and challenging game (one that feels empowering when you finally triumph over its challenges) without ever being unfair or tedious.
This extends to the game’s big showpiece addition, the EMMI sequences, as well. The EMMI are stalker robots that, upon detecting Samus, chase her relentlessly unless she manages to escape and break line of sight, and if they catch up with her, end up in what is almost always guaranteed to be a one hit kill. EMMIs are confined to certain areas on the map, and you as the player are always aware of what those areas are, and where their entries and exits are. This means that traversing an EMMI zone ends up becoming a stealth puzzle of sorts – it’s you balancing the optimum route with the least possible chances of detection, and windows of escape if you do get detected.
They’re tense, but they never outstay their welcome, because they’re always broken up by the surrounding world. You never spend more than a couple minutes in an EMMI zone – usually you have to cross it to get to the other side of the map, pick up whatever you need, and then back again, and so on. This means they remain tense, but never excessive – and even for the unfortunate players who do end up caught by the EMMIs often, having to watch Samus die repeatedly, the frustration is minimal, because you’re respawned right outside the EMMI zone, with no loss of progress.
And, again, that this masterclass in mechanical prowess and game design is backed up by some surprisingly high production values (of the kind you never expect in a 2D game in this day and age) only helps to pull Metroid Dread together into a superlative package. As mentioned, the game looks stunning, thanks to some of the best technical visuals on the Switch paired with a very strong art style that truly helps sell the distinct areas of the world you are in, the creatures that populate them, and the history behind it all, giving it a sense of place that is crucial to a successful Metroidvania.
These visuals are paired with some surprisingly strong sound design too – Dread is one of the rare Switch games that utilizes a full surround setup, and it uses it incredibly well, whether it be the ominous beeping that heralds an EMMI closing in on you, or just the background noise in the environment that helps tell the tale of this slowly dying world that you are interloping on. Metroid Dread uses some great environmental music to perpetuate this sound design and aural storytelling as well, and while some of the new melodies aren’t going to be classics in the way that the Planet Brinstar theme (for example) was, this is more than made up for by just how effective at setting the atmosphere the environmental ambient music is (as well as some killer remixes of some of the classic melodies that fans of the series have come to know and love).
Metroid Dread is a triumph. It’s a masterclass in game design, packed with a staggering amount of attention to detail and a consideration for the player that is rare to see – while also constantly challenging its player, daring them to push back, and then rewarding them when it does. It melds a level of production value and overt storytelling that is rare to see in this genre, rare to see in a 2D game, and unusual to see coming from Nintendo. Metroid Dread may have been a 20 year wait, but it was more than worth it. Samus is back, and she is still at the top of her game, now more than ever.
This game was reviewed on Nintendo Switch.
Surprisingly high production values, with a lot of polish; incredible QoL functionality, especially on the in-game map; superlative combat with some top tier boss design; a surprisingly well told and satisfying story; great world design, with visually distinct areas; an incredible amount of respect for player agency; great sound design; fantastic movement controls make the very act of existing in the game's world a joy.
Some new music isn't as great as classic Metroid melodies.