Samus Returns is a hell of a comeback.
Metroid: Samus Returns has an almost unfair amount of expectations leading up to it. It’s the first proper Metroid game we are receiving in seven years – and given just how widely reviled Other M is by the fanbase, some would argue even longer – as well as the first 2D Metroid game in twelve years. Given the legacy and heritage of titles such as Super Metroid, Metroid Fusion, and Metroid: Zero Mission, it already has a hefty legacy to live up to. It also, unfairly, has to contend with the fact that the game it is a remake of, the Gameboy classic Metroid 2: Return of Samus, already got a fan made remake last year, and one that was received extremely well by the series’ fanbase.
And yet, the almost knowingly self-awarely titled Samus Returns ends up living up to mostly all the expectations that lead into it. Samus Returns is a smart, slickly made 2D Metroid game that channels all of the best elements of the franchise, while introducing its own subtle tweaks and evolution to them. The end result is a game that feels comfortably familiar, exceptionally modern, and more than appropriate as the game that heralds what we hope will be a new era for the Metroid franchise.
Samus Returns is, as mentioned, a remake of the second game in the franchise, Metroid 2: Return of Samus. While the title has garnered a cult following in recent years, it has long been held to be the black sheep of the franchise- mostly because of its starkly alien gameplay, as well as all the limitations and constraints imposed on it by it being on the Gameboy. However, “remake” is almost inappropriate a term here- Samus Returns essentially takes the story and the basic framework of that Gameboy game, and then retools and reworks it into something all of its own. The most analogous to it, I feel, would be The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds, and the relationship that that game shared with the SNES classic A Link to the Past.
"Samus Returns is a smart, slickly made 2D Metroid game that channels all of the best elements of the franchise, while introducing its own subtle tweaks and evolution to them."
So here you have a game that feels familiar- it has the same basic map, the same basic structure of hunting down Metroids in the depths of SR-38, while working your way ever lower into its caverns, and some of the same story beats. But the map has been expanded beyond belief, to the point that many locations are barely recognizable at all, the story is retooled (to tie into Super Metroid better, as well as to hint at the future of the franchise), and most of the mechanics are all new.
A lot of these mechanics may almost seem to be controversial at first—for instance, there is a counter mechanic, which lets Samus strike back physically at any enemy rushing at her, momentarily stunning them, and letting her get an easy kill. For many, this might be anathema—and yet, it works wonderfully in context of the flow and pacing of the game and its moment to moment gameplay, as well as our understanding of Samus as a swift, agile, unstoppable bounty hunter. It actively alters the pace and flow of the game—you must stop to be able to counter, and countering can give you far easier kills than shooting at enemies will. Moreover, to compensate for your counter, enemies themselves are far more aggressive, too. But the end result is a far more involved and kinetic Metroid, one in which the palpable dread of exploring a hostile alien world never quite leaves you, simply because of how aggressive everything around you seems to be, demanding split second reactions from you.
The counter, however, settles into the flow of classic 2D Metroid really well, and most fans who go into the game with an open mind will likely end up loving it, to the point that they will now expect it in every 2D Metroid game going forwards. Far more divisive are likely to be the Aeon abilities- these are all new powers Samus gets, which are far more powerful than standard Metroid fare. One early game one, for instance, lets you get the size of the map for the area you are in, as well as highlighting any bombable walls or tiles around you. There are other, equally powerful abilities waiting for you- and yet, they are balanced extremely well, so as to never be game breaking. All Aeon abilities are governed by the same Aeon meter, and each of them use up a hefty chunk of it. Each ability additionally has a cool down associated with it, so you can’t just spam it. Finally, even when these abilities are used, they just make the game smarter, rather than easier. For instance, rather than having to painstakingly bomb every square inch you see, you now know what you have to bomb- so the game instead makes a challenge out of getting there, which is far more suited to Metroid, anyway.
This is one of those changes that again feels controversial at fist glance, but the more you play it, the more you realize how well it fits into what the series has always been about, and the more you imagine it becoming an integral part of the franchise going forward. While Metroid fans, burnt on the relentless experimentation of the franchise, which brought us games such as Other M and Federation Force, have every right to be wary, they should rest assured that these abilities are sensible additions to the series’ repertoire of mechanics, rather than being pointless gimmicks.
Other changes are more subtle—for instance, Samus now has the ability to shoot in any direction, thanks to the analog control the 3DS affords, which is a welcome addition. The map, as previously mentioned, is hugely expanded, but the expansions are all smart, and in keeping with the spirit of the franchise, giving us the best caverns Metroid has given us to explore in a 2D entry this side of Super Metroid. They are complemented by some incredible atmosphere- Metroid: Samus Returns looks utterly fantastic. While the faux-3D look might seem like an initial turn-off, it looks glorious in motion on the 3DS screen, and details such as dripping water, and wildlife moving in the backdrops of the level as you make your way through the foreground, all add to the impression of a hostile alien world that does not care for you, and will in fact actively work to eliminate you, should you let it.
"This incredible map with its gorgeous graphics is accompanied by some of the best music the Metroid series has seen."
This incredible map with its gorgeous graphics is accompanied by some of the best music the Metroid series has seen- and that is saying something. Eerie, gloomy, oppressive, and with some impressive callbacks to previous games in the franchise, the soundtrack is instrumental to Samus Returns feeling as powerfully haunting as it does, and is undoubtedly a standout.
For as well as Samus Returns pulls off most things it attempts, there are a few warts that stick out, however—for instance, the Metroid battles are, by necessity, repetitive. You are going to end up taking on forty of these creatures, and while the game tries to keep things fresh by mixing up arenas, abilities, and throwing in some unique hooks to each fight (not to mention the evolution of Metroids as you fight more and more of them), a good half of them end up feeling far too samey, and utterly unremarkable. It is a shame, and it is definitely a problem that Samus Returns has inherited from Return of Samus.
Other issues exist, too, albeit they are far more minor—controls are a bit perplexing for some of the abilities (and, as is usually the vase with Nintendo, no, you do not get the option to remap them), and while the game runs swimmingly on New 3DS models, the base model and its variants definitely see some slowdown.
But these are largely minor blemishes on an otherwise superlative game. Metroid: Samus Returns is a triumphant return to form for the franchise, and the kind of 2D Metroid game fans of the series have been waiting for for the better part of a decade now. It is a resounding redemption for series’ leader Sakamoto, who found himself in the doghouse with fans after Other M, and for Mercury Steam, who have borne the ire of many a Castlevania fan for their handling of the Lord of Shadow games. And most importantly, it is every bit an equal to the games that came before it, and a worthy addition to the top tier of the Metroid pantheon. It’s a welcome back party for Samus Aran—but its greatest victory is that it makes it feel as though Samus never left to begin with.
This game was reviewed on Nintendo 3DS.
Incredible atmosphere, great soundtrack, looks great in motion, the best map a 2D Metroid game has had this side of Super Metroid, an understated story that smartly expands the series’ mythos and lore, thrilling combat, new additions to series mechanics that fit slickly into its existing lineup of tricks
Repetitive boss fights, a litany of minor issues inherited from the original Gameboy game, slowdown on old 3DS models, some odd control choices
Metroid: Samus Returns is a triumphant return to form for the franchise, and its greatest victory is that it makes it feel as though Samus never left to begin with.