Samus Actually Returns

It’s a game that I never thought I would experience. A sequel to Metroid Fusion seemed like an automatic back in the mid-2000s, when Metroid was at an all-time high with the Metroid Prime series reinvigorating the Metroid ma,e and bringing in new fans. Common sense seemed to dictate that Nintendo would capitalize on the Metroid heyday, but for whatever reason, years kept on going by with no new 2D Metroid entry. Sure, there was Metroid: Zero Mission, and Metroid: Samus Returns, both remakes of older titles. As far as a continuation of the 2D games’ storyline, however, Metroid fans probably would have just frozen themselves in carbonite and waited it out in suspended animation if they knew it would take *checks the math*…19 YEARS(!) for Metroid Dread to be announced. The fact that I am actually doing a Metroid Dread review is still hard for me to fathom.

A lot has changed in gaming over the past 19 years since Metroid Fusion on the GameBoy Advance. The Metroid series has arguably been unseated from its position of best “Metroidvania” during this period, but Metroid Dread has come around to reclaim the throne. From the atmosphere, controls, boss battles, puzzles, exploration, storyline, you name it, Dread delivers on just about everything you could ask of it.

It may have taken Nintendo far too long to take this cake out of the oven, but the wait just makes it that much sweeter when it lives up to expectations. Nintendo and Co-developer MercurySteam have delivered a Metroid experience that should give fans what they want, entice some new ones, and live up to the standards set by Super Metroid, which is not something I say lightly.

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I played through the entire game with the Switch docked using a Pro controller on an OLED TV. Although it might be bad form to have not even tried the game in handheld mode before writing a review, I had no desire to play the game handheld on the Switch’s 720p screen if I didn’t need to, and I didn’t. Dread made me wish Nintendo had released a more powerful Switch instead of the OLED model, not because the game looks bad, but rather, because I know it could look that much better if Nintendo had the hardware out to support the software.

Having said that, let me reiterate: Dread looks good. It’s the best-looking Metroid game we’ve ever had and while I’m partial to the well-done sprites and 16-bit graphics of the older titles, there is no comparison to what Dread accomplishes visually. The backgrounds are so gorgeous that it’s hard to refer to them as simply “backgrounds” anymore. They add so much to the game’s overall environment, atmosphere and even plot that referring to them in such a way seems like an insult.

Gorgeous Cutscenes

The cutscenes in the game are really where longtime Metroid fans have been downright spoiled. From the opening cinematic where Samus faces off against a mysterious foe to dropping in on our old pal Kraid once again, and even the seemingly simple things like getting a new upgrade, the cutscenes in Metroid Dread make so many moments feel special and memorable. It is almost everything a Metroid fan could have dreamed of and more. Newcomers to the franchise will be delighted by what they see as well. Dread looks like a game that must be pushing the Switch to its limits.

Adequate Audio

The audio of the game is what I would call serviceable. The sound effects for things like your arm cannon and other abilities all sound pretty good, especially the Power Bomb, which sounds and looks like something that could level a city. Certain enemies have some very peculiar sounds as well, especially the E.M.M.I.s, which sound plain ol’ creepy.

I get the feeling though that the music of Dread won’t stand the test of time as well as a game like Super Metroid. The score always matched the atmosphere well, or the situation you were in, but I don’t think any of them stood out to me in the way that some of the themes from Super Metroid did. The audio presentation is really good, just not iconic.

Mind-Blowing Story

The plot wasn’t exactly where I figured Metroid would be heading after the events of Fusion. Given that Samus had just point blank defied the orders of the Galactic Federation and sent one of their research stations beaming into Planet SR388, you would think that Samus would have to deal with them in some manner, right? Research stations ain’t cheap I’d imagine. Not that the Federation was right to be upset with Samus, they were attempting to play with things they didn’t fully understand (X Parasites), after all, and were purposefully keeping Samus in the dark about their intentions the whole time.

But, Samus went against them, and by all logic, you would assume a sequel to Fusion would be dealing with the fallout from all of that – not to mention Adam says that Samus would have to deal with it as well in the epilogue of Fusion. I’m not bothered that the game didn’t go in this direction, it just seemed like the next logical story to tell from my perspective.

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So, while I was prepared for Samus to be treated as something of a fugitive and have to face off against the might of the Galactic Federation, Dread instead seems to not want to cross that bridge just yet and instead chooses to focus on the history of Samus, the Chozo, Metroids, and X Parasites and connect all the dots. It sounds like a lot to deal with in one game, but Dread pulls it off without missing a beat.

To avoid major spoilers I won’t go into details, but Dread has a bunch of surprises in store for Metroid fans that will have your eyebrows going crazier than Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson’s in 1999. Players new to Metroid don’t need to worry about feeling in the dark either, as Dread’s intro does an adequate job of explaining the gist of the Metroid story so far as to not leave new players feeling lost. If this is supposedly the game to wrap up the 2D Metroid storyline, then it’s a hell of a way to go out.

Controlling Samus

So, how does the 2D Metroid series make use of a controller in this modern era of gaming? Pretty well I would say. To be perfectly honest, it feels weird to be playing a 2D Metroid game using an analog stick rather than a d-pad. In Samus Returns on 3DS, using the analog stick was especially awkward on the handheld, but I could make due.

I was worried that Dread would feel just as awkward, however, Samus always handled very responsively and there were very few instances where I felt a d-pad would have sufficed better. The analog/d-pad quirk is likely only something that veteran Metroid players would even think twice about. Newcomers probably won’t even think about it, but I thought it was worth mentioning that longtime Metroid players might feel a bit off not using a d-pad to control Samus.

I did stop to think though about how after I beat the game, not once did I use the right analog stick, nor was it even given a function throughout the game. I guess I don’t know that it could have been used in place of something else to better effect, but it seemed a little curious that it had absolutely no purpose in the game at all. That slight caveat aside, I had no issues with the default button mapping for Dread. It all felt very intuitive and easy to learn.

Aiming the Omega Cannon during the final parts of an E.M.M.I. encounter were about the only parts of the game where the controls felt clunky. It seemed to be a bit overly sensitive for trying to line up your shots with it, which was a bit frustrating with some of the E.M.M.I. towards the end of the game when every second counts. Overall, you get used to it though and I would say Dread now holds the crown as best controls for a 2D Metroid.

You Know Cartography, Right?

Now, let’s discuss the map in Dread. After Super Metroid made the map a major in-game function, each subsequent 2D Metroid has improved upon how the map is used and Dread is no exception, although, it may have gone a bit over the top for my taste. The map is as detailed as it has ever been, showing you virtually every little nook and cranny you can explore in the game.

It lets you place several different colored waypoint markers, denoting if an area is a safe temperature, extremely hot, extremely cold, or if there is a spider magnet section, where there are missile tanks, energy tanks, fast travel areas, teleporters, power beam gates, grapple hook gates, and so on, and so on, and…I think you get the point. 

The map is incredibly detailed, yes, but it’s so detailed that it can overwhelm you with information when you’re just trying to figure out where you should go now that you have a new power-up. I don’t know that I would advocate for objective markers like previous titles had to show you where to go, but at the same time, it’s a bit frustrating to waste an hour re-exploring an area to figure out where to go, only to turn to Googling the answer and finding out you’re nowhere close to the right area.

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I think an “I give up, just tell me where to go” option would have been nice for those of us that don’t exactly want to spend hours just aimlessly wandering around, hoping to find the next thing that lets you progress. Yes, I know the veteran Metroid players who beat NES Metroid back in ‘86 with nothing more than a brown crayon and an old piece of paper to draw their own map on are disgusted by the notion. But if I feel like I need to turn to Google for an answer, then maybe the game should just have the “easy out” option for those of us not blessed with the cartographic skills of our ancestors.

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E.M.M.I. Zones Terrified Me

E.M.M.I. zones certainly live up to the namesake where the game gets its title from because they absolutely can leave you drenched in dread. Although certain E.M.M.I. zones pull this off better than others. One, in particular, felt frustrating, however. Trying to find the right spot to use your Omega Cannon on it was infuriating. I was doing loops with that thing for far too long before I resorted to watching a video on it and facepalming myself for not even thinking to use a spot at the top of the area.

Oh, also, I legitimately countered an E.M.M.I. FOUR TIMES IN A ROW to get the wave beam – sorry, had to brag about that one. I would’ve liked to have seen Samus become powerful enough while playing to just straight-up fight an E.M.M.I., without an Omega Cannon but I still enjoyed their addition to the Metroid series and like how they added to the overall anxiety levels of the game.

Well Paced Power-Ups

Some interesting ways they handled the item progression in Dread compared to other Metroid games. I enjoyed that they didn’t just give you some of the most common power-ups right off the bat, such as Morph Ball. Practically every power-up in Dread has to be earned. I am also a fan of some of Samus’ previous abilities, such as grabbing ledges now just being the default abilities Samus always has. Space Jump was a particularly fun power-up to use in Dread as compared to other 2D Metroids, as it has you largely using it to explore underwater areas, rather than to explore vertically as you might expect.

A few power-ups, or the lack thereof, I took slight issue with. Grapple beam to me feels like an outdated power-up that they just sort of shoehorned into the game for the sake of having it. When you think about it, there’s no reason specific doors had to be opened with the grapple hook. The few spots you do some grapple hook swinging felt very cumbersome as well. The only enjoyment that ability brought me was using it to quickly ascend u a spider magnet wall to evade an E.M.M.I. and even that gets replaced by Space Jump later in the game. I think the Grapple Hook needs to be implemented a bit more creatively, or it just needs to not be in Metroid games. I didn’t like it that much in Super Metroid and I still don’t like it in Dread.

No Ice Beam?

Where’s my Ice Beam, Nintendo? No, ice missiles don’t count. At the end of Metroid Fusion, Samus is once again able to use the Ice Beam after absorbing the SA-X, so I see no reason to not bring it back for Dread. I’ve heard some “canon” explanations for why Samus can’t use it, mostly, because it wouldn’t be compatible with her Metroid DNA but that’s bogus.

Samus has the same Metroid DNA in her at the end of Fusion as she does in Dread, so there’s no explanation for it being missing other than it being a gameplay decision by the developers. Fair play to them, if they don’t want their game to use it, that’s their decision. However, the Ice Beam is iconic to Metroid and offers up a lot of interesting ways to explore by being able to freeze enemies in place to platform on them and I think it’s a bit of a miss to not bring it back.

Aeion Abilities

Aeion abilities from Samus Returns are back and are once again just sort of okay. Why they are considered different than other power-ups and get their fancy name still sort of confuses me, but it doesn’t matter. The Phantom Cloak I only found myself using in E.M.M.I. zones, which is basically how the game tells you to use it, however, I’m surprised that it didn’t come into use in a boss fight or something to that extent. Flash Shift can be really useful once you find out how to exploit it in boss fights but the game has a weird way of expecting you to know when and how to use it without ever really telling you outside of a loading screen message.

Finally, Pulse Radar is sort of that “okay, seriously, what am I not seeing?” button that I think the map could have used as well. I don’t have major issues with Aeion abilities, I just wonder why they aren’t used a bit more creatively?

All in all, Dread does an excellent job of giving you power-ups at a steady pace that always makes you feel capable of dealing with any enemy or obstacle you encounter. It feels like a return to form from Super Metroid after Metroid Fusion had a bit of an issue with giving you some great power-ups, but only let you play with them for what felt like five minutes. Luckily, the tried and true power-ups from Metroids past are enough to carry Dread and still keep the game feeling fresh when you get another one.

Boss Fights: If at First, You Don’t Succeed, Try Again, and Again, and Again…

Metroid Dread does not take boss fights lightly and has no problem absolutely slapping you around until you figure out the boss’ patterns. Metroid has always been about learning how the boss behaves and adapting your strategy around that, though Dread takes that philosophy to the absolute limit. The best way to summarize any given boss fight in Dread would be to say that it is incredibly challenging, but not unfair and I would even argue that once you get it down, they can be very fun. No boss is unbeatable, you just need to know how to deal with it. Some might take a lot longer than others to figure out, but if you manage to strike the final blow it feels incredible.

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The very first boss you face, Corpius, does an excellent job of setting your expectations going forward for each subsequent boss fight. There are several phases to the fight, and you’ll find almost all of the bosses have multiple phases to their fights, something that keeps the encounters from becoming too repetitive. You need to have precise timing to your attacks as well as hit the weak point of the enemy, be evasive enough to dodge its attacks, and stay vigilant enough to be ready for a melee counter that will lead to a beautiful cinematic portion of the fight, which is a quick time event in which you can inflict massive damage. This formula is essentially how nearly all of the boss fights will play out, to varying degrees and it is a recipe for success in Dread.

Repetitive Mini-Bosses

Where the main bosses of the game shine, the mini-bosses are quite the letdown. I think the philosophy of quality over quantity would have been something the developers should have kept in mind before deciding to put in several Chozo Soldier battles. Don’t get me wrong, the first encounter with one is intense and I enjoyed it.

But by the time I was facing off against what felt like my fifth or sixth Chozo Soldier, I was just rolling my eyes wondering why it had to be one of these dudes every time? My boy, Botwoon would be rolling over in his grave if he saw the quality of mini-bosses Dread was offering up – not that he has a grave anymore, since, you know, Samus blew that whole planet up…

Conclusion: For the Love of Mother Brain, Nintendo…

I am so happy that there is another 2D Metroid game out for me to enjoy that I can’t properly articulate how glad I am. All my major or minor gripes with the game aside, overall, Metroid Dread is a damn fine 2D Metroid game that I can play on a modern console and enjoy for years to come. I just really, really, really hope the game sells well enough to make Nintendo pay attention to its seemingly forsaken child that is Metroid and they get the ball rolling on another 2D offering in the not-so-distant future. Dread may be advertised as the end of the Metroid storyline that started back in 1986 but there are still plenty of stories for Nintendo to tell about the legendary bounty hunter, Samus Aran and I desperately need more of Samus in my life.

Metroid Dread accomplished what few if any, games relegated to its scenario have ever been able to achieve. It escaped developmental hell and lived to not only tell about it but absolutely wow us. We’ve all heard of so many games over the years, from the heavily rumored that never materialize, to the once announced but delayed so many times that it may as well just have never been mentioned in the first place. Metroid Dread is both of these games and still managed to make it through nearly 20 years later. I look forward to many replays of the game in the coming years and I hope that you reading this do as well.

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Beautiful presentation makes me wish the Switch was more powerful.
Challenging Boss fights leave you feeling accomplished upon victory.
Satisfying and surprising story.
Intuitive controls.
The pace of progression feels good.
The map can feel overwhelming with information.
Loading screens are a tad long.
Repetitive Mini-Bosses.
Easy to get lost at times.
Lack of a fan favorite power-up and some other power-ups that feel unnecessary.

Review Summary

Metroid Dread is a top-tier offering in the Metroid franchise, rivaling the 2D greatness of Super Metroid. The presentation is beautiful throughout, in practically every facet. There are challenging, yet satisfying boss fights, although mini-bosses leave something to be desired. The controls feel great, the pace of getting power-ups is ideal and E.M.M.I.’s will leave your heart racing.

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