Metroid: Samus Returns – The Switch Island Review
Among a certain age group, seeing that ship land again, with Samus rising from its top hatch, will be a sight for sore eyes. From the Super Nintendo onwards Metroid has been a series associated with the very best of Nintendo, probably in the top three, with – of course – Zelda and Mario. For many, the Super Nintendo has three unmissable games: Super Mario World, The Legend Of Zelda: A Link To The Past and Super Metroid. Predating that classic by three years, Metroid 2: The Return Of Samus, was the GameBoy sequel to the first NES game. It holds a special place in my heart: it was the first Metroid game I played, back on my beloved GameBoy Color (I’ve posted two pics of the original game below the review). This remake of that GameBoy game, newly titled Samus Returns, is the first 2D Metroid since 2004’s Zero Mission (itself a remake), and therefore has a lot of weight on its shoulders. Add on that it was revealed alongside its big sister Metroid Prime 4 at 2017’s E3, and you’re really throwing weight onto those hefty shoulder pads. Nintendo wanted us all to know their bounty hunter was back; the title Samus Returns is surely no accident.
For those who don’t know Metroid, it’s a side-scrolling action adventure series, defined by progressive unlocking of abilities that allow for backtracking to new areas that were previously inaccessible. These were the games that gave the world the first part of the ‘metroidvania’ genre name. Samus Aran is the series’ bounty hunter protagonist, and has a range of abilities, with her signature move being to transform into a ball to roll through small gaps and, later, up walls. There are no levels; it’s just Samus alone in a labyrinthine network of tunnels and caverns, desperately trying to survive to get to the next save station. The series is atmospheric and influenced by science fiction, most of all by the Alien franchise. Samus Returns does a good job of holding onto all of these core aspects of the series; I certainly felt right at home.
There are some novel tweaks for the series here though. Samus can now aim and shoot in any direction, and this opens up lots of aiming opportunities, and allows for an increase in the rate and toughness of the enemies. New cinematic cutscenes, especially in the spectroscopic 3D, bring Samus to life in a way not before seen in a 2D Metroid. More controversial though is Samus’ new melee attack, that lets her uppercut enemies at close approach. I personally found this useful and an interesting change from the normal blasting; it added a strategic element to some of the encounters. If you don’t like it however, I can assure you that the game requires it more at the beginning and less as you progress and power-up.
My absolute favourite reworking of Metroid 2 though is the map and orientation abilities. Metroid 2 is infamous for having tunnel after greyscale tunnel, each looking identical to the last, giving lots of opportunity for the player to get lost and feel increasingly frustrated. For some reason I didn’t mind this back on the GameBoy Color, but I know from more recent metroidvanias (like Axiom Verge) that my patience has waned here and I don’t find getting lost as fun as I used to; a little structure and focus to my alien hunting does wonders. Samus Returns addresses these issues. Firstly, it separates the world into discreet areas, each with their own look and feel. It’s possible to travel back to the previous sections to collect secrets, but you aren’t required to. Secondly, it adds teleports. Not only between areas but also within areas. Thirdly, you can choose to use a new ability to reveal secret blocks. This is a bit of cheat, especially as finding secrets was a big aspect of the earlier games’ draw, but it does help if you are just wanting to get through the game and blast aliens. Its also totally optional. Fourthly, if you die in a boss battle you restart outside the room. No longer do you have to slog your way back from the last save point (…yay!). Lastly, the map itself. That there’s a map at all is a reason to celebrate: Metroid 2 didn’t have one. All of these inclusions might make it sound as if the game is now too easy (like Zero Mission and Fusion?), but luckily that’s not the case: Samus Returns is a tough fight and you’re going to die a lot. I would say these inclusions remove the frustration of getting lost and focus the enjoyment on the challenge of combat and exploration.
In Samus Returns the focus is on hunting down metroids, one by one. There are forty of them. They are essentially mini-bosses and there are some repeats. I found them challenging and enjoyable to fight and didn’t mind the repeats; it felt natural that a world would have many versions of the same species, like in Alien. The journey to the metroids is a mixture of combat and environmental puzzle solving. Getting from place to place feeling as if you’re the first one to work out a route is one of the best aspects of this series (and many games since), where seemingly secret routes reveal themselves as essential pathways through the labyrinth.
Graphically, it’s a 3DS game. There’s no escaping the feeling that this would be gorgeous in HD on the Switch. But, for a 3DS game, this is very good looking, and I did manage to forget about the Switch for the 12 hours I was playing. The detailed backdrops, filling out the alien world with strange structures, is worth sliding the 3D slider for. I found I wanted to play the whole game in 3D.
My only minor gripe is that it doesn’t feel as atmospheric as some of the others in the series. I love the feeling in Super Metroid of haunting isolation, whereas Samus Returns is more action orientated. This is not a huge issue though, more of a personal taste. The only other issue would be the price. It’s certainly a long game with lots of replay value (lots of secrets, two hard modes), but £39.99 seems a lot when compared with similar indie titles at a third of the price like Axiom Vergeor Steamworld Dig.
On almost every point, I’m pleased to say that Samus Returns does not drop the ball. It is a reassuringly difficult, triumphant return for the genre-defining bounty hunter, and I had a blast playing it. I honestly don’t know how someone new to the series would find it, but it has certainly been refreshed and updated for modern audiences without jeopardising its Metroid-ness. It was an unabashed delight to romp through a subterranean alien world as Samus again and I hope we don’t have to wait another thirteen years until her next side-scrolling adventure.