It has been 13 years since the Metroid franchise last threw the titular Samus Aran into a side-scrolling shooter, and that's a reality that's been looked upon rather disparagingly by fans of the series in the wake of one particularly unwanted spin-off. Now Metroid: Samus Returns for the Nintendo 3DS has appeared to simultaneously appease wishful fans and end that aforementioned drought, but the best part about it is that it's every bit the return that gamers had been hoping for.
Opting to reimagine the narrative of the Game Boy classic Metroid II: Return of Samus, Nintendo has ensured that Samus's return to the aptly dubbed "Metroidvania" genre is of a noteworthy quality by enlisting a developer that's well versed in the latter half of genre's name. MercurySteam, known for its previous work on several iterations of the Castlevania franchise, is the developer behind Samus Returns, and the teeth that the studio cut while working on the Konami property have been put to great use with the expert supervision of Metroid co-creator Yoshio Sakamoto.
What follows in the wake of this collaboration is a game that delves into the mythos of the sci-fi universe and manages to feel right at home alongside some of the best parts of the franchise. With a sprawling environment and a wide range of colorful and ominous (albeit cavernous and dungeon-esque) locales, this title wastes no time in throwing players right into the setting that they'll be exploring throughout the duration of this 20+ hour campaign.
Tasking Aran with wiping out the remaining Metroid creatures, the bounty hunter quickly jumps in her ship and arrives on the planet SR388 with the intent of doing so before space pirates can get their hands on the beasts. Almost expectedly, the story isn't what drives the need to keep playing, instead relying entirely on the gameplay to keep fans engaged and motivated until completion – moved forward throughout as a result of a Metroid counter featured on-screen and the unexplored rooms surrounding the protagonist on the map.
As players traverse through world killing off what few members remain of the hostile alien species, ability-centric puzzles lay scattered across the land. Players will continuously be unlocking new pieces of Samus Aran's power suit during the venture, all of which lead to ample backtracking through the game's vast world in order to face new enemies and gather more power-ups that only strengthen the hero further. While the nature of backtracking may sound tedious to some, this side-scrolling romp does a great job at making each and every enhancement to the protagonist feel hard-earned and worthwhile.
Having said that, what MercurySteam and Nintendo have done well in this game is to really bestow a sense of power as players progress towards the end of Samus Returns. The moment Samus steps out of her ship, the hero feels vulnerable. Her suit is smaller and her powers are minimal, which puts an emphasis on simply surviving. As users slowly build up their arsenal and strengthen the suit, however, the roles begin to reverse and the once fragile soldier quickly becomes a predator rather than prey. It's a nice build in lieu of actual character development through narrative, with Samus remaining as stoic and badass as she has ever been through action in-game.
As one note, players will have to adjust to the control options made accessible on the 3DS. Countering, aiming, missile selection, and cycling through Samus's newly implemented Aeion abilities can be a little overwhelming from the early goings, but this learning curve is conquered in time as the abilities of the heroine are slowly expanded upon. Even then, things can get a little frantic and feel cluttered in the heat of battle – with morphing to and from ball form when necessary being one of the more likely things to go awry during a mad dash away from an enemy or a quickly-paced puzzle. Extended periods of play also caused my hands to cramp up, which speaks to how intense/frustrating certain scenarios within Metroid are and how less-than-ergonomic the design of the New Nintendo 3DS XL is itself.
Sticking with the controls, the counter option (executed by timing 'X' button presses in unison with oncoming enemy attacks) is a very interesting addition to the game. While every accurate deflection requires a follow up of precision blasting to take down a foe, it also helps to give players a fighting chance and sets up opportunities to deal serious damage on some of the tougher forms that the Metroid creatures will appear in. All of this is important to note because Metroid: Samus Returns is no walk in the park, which is sure to only further add to the appeal for some gamers looking for a challenge. Still, there are a few things the developers could have done to flesh out the experience a little more.
While MercurySteam has done a wonderful job piecing together an engaging world, it feels like there may have been some added benefit in adding additional bosses – something the game sorely lacks. Indeed, encounters with the Metroid aliens play out like a series of noteworthy battles, as intended, but once players have mastered the steps necessary to destroy them it becomes a process of rinse and repeat. There are a few surprises along the way that do well to address this creeping sense of tedium, but all in all the addition of more large-scale baddies would have gone a long way in setting mental milestones for the player outside of Metroid killing and puzzle solving.
Still, as the name of the game implies, Metroid: Samus Returns is a homecoming for one of Nintendo's most beloved heroes, and it's a return to form that many had been anticipating for years. To revisit something said at the beginning of this review, it has been 13 years since Samus starred in a side-scrolling shooter and after playing through this latest title it's odd to think of any rational reason as to why she ever left.
Metroid: Samus Returns is set to arrive exclusively for Nintendo 3DS and Nintendo 2DS systems on September 15, 2017.