For the first time since 2004 Metroid fans have a new official 2D entry in the series and I along with many others are glad that Samus has returned once again, even if it is a remake of 1991’s Metroid II: Return of Samus. I’ve recently beat and even 100%’d Metroid: Samus Returns and I have quite a lot of thoughts as a longtime and passionate Metroid fan. I’m going to dig deep into every aspect of this game, not to be unfairly nitpicky, but because Metroid is usually held to such a high standard and is a series that is extremely dear to me.
Let me begin by getting this out of the way, yes, I will be making comparisons to AM2R. It’s out there, it made a big splash in the fan community, and unless I can go in my mind and erase the memory of it, I’m going to think about and compare it to Samus Returns. That being said I’ll bring up comparisons when appropriate to do so, just as I will bring up Super, Fusion, Zero Mission, and the other Metroid titles as well.
Going back to the reveal of this Metroid 2 remake back in E3 2017, I was filled with both excitement and concern that this would be a 2.5D title on the 3DS headed by Sakamoto and MercurySteam, a team whose previous work on Castlevania did little to instill faith in me, however as more and more of the game was shown off in presentations and events (a smart move by Nintendo) some of those concerns were put to rest. The game’s now been out for a few days and I got myself the special edition (which was nowhere near as special as the version Europe got).
To address my earliest concerns, the visuals of Metroid: Samus Returns are a mixed bag. Say what you will about their catalog of games, it is quite clear that MercurySteam has some talented artists on their team. The opening scene of Samus Returns looks pretty good on the dated 3DS hardware and the exterior of planet SR388 was actually quite beautifully realized. Unfortunately, in my eyes, it’s a bit downhill from there. The low-poly visuals, no matter how colorful or bleak, look muddy, jaggy, and very simplistic.
I’ll always stand by sprite-based or hand-animated visuals over 2.5D, I don’t care if it’s done on a PC or console powerful enough to drive 8k 60fps graphics with a billion-dollar budget. Art style always shines the brightest in straight up 2D or 3D, the in-between always comes off as a compromise. I switched off playing this game on my 2DS and my New 2DS XL, and the imperfections in graphics don’t stand out quite as much on a smaller screen, but it’s still less than ideal.
However, there are some beautiful backgrounds in some areas of the game, detailed with strange inhabitants of planet SR388 going about their business. This attention to detail does help bolster the overall visual style of this reimagining of Metroid II, but it doesn’t eliminate the artificial feel of the low-res foreground.
Speaking of the artificial feel, in every 2D Metroid since Super Metroid there would always be blocks, chunks in the land, that can only be destroyed by certain items. This is a very “gamey” element that in my opinion works well enough in the 2D games. This was thrown out in the Metroid Prime series as the transition to 3D requires certain elements to be more analogous to life and having blocks with a picture of a missile or screw attack in a more realistic setting would be quite immersion-breaking. Now I’m glad these very odd blocks with pictures of power-ups on them were kept for M:SR, I think that was the right call gameplay-wise, but in this new 2.5D perspective having those elements does create more of a dissonance for me than it would in say Super or Fusion. This is just one more reason to stick with a purely 2D style, and I hope that’s the direction MercurySteam takes if they do go on to make another Metroid game.
My case for sticking to exactly two dimensions doesn’t end there however, though my next criticism is more about the locales and their purposes in Metroid games. Though I do indeed love the Gameboy original, I’d never deny there’s a lot you’d be left wanting while playing that game. There were no backgrounds, just black, and as an original Gameboy title, the color was either puke-green or black & white depending how you choose to revisit it. I first played it on the Gameboy Color where it was given a very simple and limited color palette. Environments were blue & white, Samus & enemies were the standard contrast of orange & yellow. Even with those colors, exploring the depths of the Metroid home-world could become quite the eyesore, but one thing the title accomplished with its limited visuals and nearly non-existent music was a very dark, creepy, and unsettling tone; a tone that rightfully fit with an Aliens inspired game about traveling to a planet alone to commit genocide of the most dangerous species in the known galaxy.
Over the course of the next three entries in the 2D series, Metroid would become known for its dark & brooding backgrounds and generally dim aesthetic, complemented by thankfully more melodic, yet equally atmospheric tracks that increase any tension the settings already give you. For as much as Samus Returns tries to do with color and it’s varied backgrounds, this tone that I praise the Gameboy original for is almost entirely lost. In this aspect, you could say that this is less of a remake and more of its own thing, but even then (and maybe this is mostly because of the 2.5D visual) a lot of the locales come off as discount Prime caverns and less like new interesting areas, or even ones that are faithful to Metroid 2.
In the fan-made AM2R, DoctorM64 set out to make sense of the areas presented in Metroid 2. Area one became a Chozo temple in line with the aesthetic of Chozodia from Metroid Zero Mission. Here you find the typical spiritual markings fans have come to know from the Chozo race. Area 2 is a hydroelectric plant, with a higher emphasis on technology over typical Chozo orbs ‘n spirits. Area 3 is a full on automated robotics facility. Hopefully you see there’s a clear progression of visual design that reflects the Chozo’s own time on SR388 as well as being unique and standing out from previous areas, something that a Gameboy title probably couldn’t do.
Now Metroid: Samus Returns has WAY more visual variety than the original, let that be clear, however a lot of the areas lack individuality. If you follow along with the Chozo memories art you can unlock in Samus Returns there is also an attempt to do what Metroid does best and tell its story visually, unfortunately I don’t think the team succeeded as much as AM2R did in this area. M:SR has a motif of the Chozo and their Diggernauts large & small alike burrowing deeper into the planet for its resources, but not much else. Here, area 1 also has a bit of a Chozo ruins vibe going on, and area 2 also has a lot of water and a big dam in the background (hmm, coincidence?). For the most part, it’s their colors that differentiate the areas, though area 2 has a bunch of huge crystals in the backgrounds that it looks like the Chozo were mining for resources, however area 4 looks just like this too, except for some slight color differences (the crystals are purple instead of teal). Area 3 also feels like a bigger rehashed area one, just with more robots and indigenous creatures in the background.
Truly the visuals don’t get interesting until area 5, where you’re in a more outdoor looking (despite supposedly being deeper underground than all previous areas) location, filled with grass, plant life, and even more pools of water than previous areas. The one area I truly like though, is area 7, a high-tech Chozo lab demonstrating the peak of Chozo invention & intelligence, it’s also complemented by one of the few brand-new and original tracks in the game, a pretty good one too. It’s very unique, memorable, and stands out among all of the other areas.
EDIT: A huge thing I totally forgot to mention was the final area. In both the original and AM2R, the final area had zero enemies. It was a huge cavernous space, quite a long way to go to get to the queen and it had zero enemies. I think it's quite obvious why that would be the case. This area is the Metroid hive, the strongest concentration of Metroid activity. The Omegas are the last line of defense here and any life that would exist would be food for the newborns the Queen creates. In Samus Returns there's tons of functioning robots and regular enemies everywhere, right up to the panultimate rooms where you fight some young Metroids before the Queen. It's a little concerning such an important detail would be overlooked in a game all about what Metroids have done to the ecosystem.
But interesting or not, none of the areas convey that fear the Gameboy original did. As a matter of fact, the thing that scared me the most was Chozo memory #10 warping into #11. Perhaps some of these environments could’ve been more affecting in a 2D Ori & The Blind Forest or just Fusion-esque HD style. If anyone from the team is reading this, I beg of you, either of those options would be preferable to another 2.5D game.
But what about the gameplay? Isn’t that the most important thing in a Metroid? Why, yes, it is! The choice of gameplay style here automatically makes this a better game than Other M. For the most part, the gameplay is what you’d expect from a traditional 2D Metroid outing. Running, jumping, shooting, exploring, discovering, & puzzle solving are all in-tact. Jumps have the right weight to them and feel like I’d expect it to feel. While not my favorite set of sound effects, the pew-pews, clinks, & clanks of protagonist Samus Aran for the most part, feel right. People will say Super Metroid is perfect, but the mechanics, physics, & fluidity of Fusion & ZM do it better for me, so I was quite glad that feel transferred over pretty well to the 3DS outing. Physics are always tricky when extra depth & dimensions start being added.
There’s also a heavily marketed new mechanic in Samus Returns, and that’s 360-degree aiming. Samus can come to a complete stop and aim more precisely with the 3DS’ circle pad. Not a bad mechanic on paper, but here the controls have the opposite problem the controls did in Metroid Other M. In the controversial Wii title, Samus could move in a fully 3D environment, but only via digital inputs on a d-pad. Here Samus in on a 2-dimensional plane with digital movement (save for 360 aiming obviously) that is mapped to an analog circle pad. So as responsive as Samus is this time around controlling un-varied movement like this is a bit cumbersome. There were many times I wanted to quickly drop down or enter morph ball as I was falling, but sliding a circle pad takes way more time to register a digital input than a d-pad would, making these actions harder than they should be, especially when they were perfected in Fusion & Zero Mission. This will no doubt be an issue for speed-runners. Even late in the game my thumbs were reaching for the d-pad every 5 minutes, and those reviews complaining about the control scheme hurting their hands, that’s no joke.
Also, while there is more accuracy with 360-degree aiming than the 8-directional aiming in previous games, the circle pad again falters here, not being anywhere as precise as a real analog stick. There’s also the fact that to get a good shot in you have to stop dead in your tracks to aim, yet another pace breaker in the game.
The biggest pace breaker, though, is the other shiny new mechanic, the counter move. I’ve seen it get much praise in outlet reviews, but hated it less than 30 minutes into the game. Until you acquire the spazer beam enemies take a ridiculous amount of hits to go down, which I’m sure was done to encourage use of the counter mechanic. When at least 90% of the enemies are best taken down by the counter it becomes uninteresting very quickly. First of all, it’s always a one hit kill unless you have the ice beam equipped or are fighting a boss. This diminishes the effects of getting new beams and power-ups for a good portion of the game. It also creates this pace stopping dynamic where the player has to halt forward progression to deal with enemies, usually one at a time. And unless you have pro-speedrunner reflexes you’ll have to stop to deal with enemies as they appear on screen, because they charge at you immediately. If you don’t dodge or deal with them you’ll deal with the high amount of damage they deal out on even the lowest difficulty setting. Fusion was a difficult Metroid game, but even when Samus was her most underpowered I never felt like I couldn’t skillfully clear out a room of baddies, no matter what direction they come from. In M:SR it’s not a question of skill. Just hit the counter button when you see the enemy flash and hit the shoot button. Done & done, but it’s not like you’ll run into a room with a screen full of enemies charging at you (unless it’s those small swarms that need the burst aeon or plasma beam) anyways, for the most part you encounter one or two enemies at a time because of how fundamental the counter combat is to this game. Combat was the biggest sore-point of Mirror of Fate for me and it’s only a bit better here.
The one area I can complement the combat is with the sense of empowerment Metroid is known for, sure it takes a bit longer here because of how much you’ll be relying on the counter, but once you have the plasma beam, screw attack, and space jump you can say goodbye to the counter for regular enemies (and I didn’t look back). I do feel like I should mention that this time around the space jump ability doesn’t have its own animation or sound effect, it’s just the normal flipping animation, this stood out to me as a bit weird.
Anyways many the familiar and favorite Metroid power-ups & abilities are here and function like you’d expect them to, well except for the wall jump. No sequence breaking wall-jumps here, jumping on a wall pushes you away from it, Fusion did this which was fine in my book. What isn’t okay is If you are in a narrow space you can’t wall jump to get back up, even though the walls are close enough to allow you to. Early on in the surface area I dropped down one of two morph ball holes by accident and there was a missile tank down the other one. It was pretty frustrating to have to circle back through the area just to grab one pickup so early on. The wall jump is also easier than ever to pull off, just cling to the side of a wall and press the jump button. I kind of miss the skill of being able to pull of multiple wall jumps in succession.
Missiles work like they did in the GBA titles, but they feel a bit slower here, probably to again promote use of the counter mechanic as the quickest way to deal with enemies. Beams stack except for the ice beam oddly enough. I can understand why, if you want to freeze enemies, it’s probably best not to combine the ice beam with more lethal weapons, but the ice beam only actually freezes enemies with a charge shot or a counter, which kind of defeats the purpose of having a regular ice shot at all since it does no damage unless you’re fighting Metroids, in which case a charged shot is still far more effective than chipping away with single shots anyways.
Since the ice beam essentially just becomes the Metroid-killing beam once you get the space jump, switching beams isn’t really a big deal, but it’s still less than ideal. You switch beams & missiles with the touch screen, if you’re like me and want to keep that touch screen fingerprint clean & well calibrated, you’ll be pulling out the stylus every time you want to do so. Again, not a huge hindrance, especially since whenever you need to use the grapple beam you free aiming at a grapple target automatically switches you.
There are, however, a few timing reliant puzzles where this is a bit of an issue, but it’s the biggest issue during the Diggernaut chase. In this segment, you’ll need to switch between shooting blocks out of your path and grappling over spikes to avoid instant death, so stopping to free aim isn’t an option, and switching to the grapple beam via touch screen when you’re in an intense chase isn’t necessarily more practical either. This is where customizable controls would’ve been a frustration-saver, but for some reason Nintendo is averse to allowing options in their games.
Brand new “Aeon Abilities” occupy the d-pad inputs and uses the A button for their activation. There were much less times I had to use these special abilities in conjunction with each other or quick swap them, so I would’ve much preferred these take up the touch screen if I absolutely couldn’t get customizable controls.
The aeon abilities are another mixed bag for me, I quite like the one that allows you to slow down time as trying to shinespark properly with the circle pad would’ve been a nightmare. The shield aeon I only found of use for a few particular puzzles, the beam burst is pretty neat, but really only useful for (all 2) non-Metroid bosses and the few enemies that can only be taken down by a burst. Otherwise the counter deals with enemies with one shot as pointed out before, but I’m glad the player doesn’t have to rely on an energy-limited move like this as much as the counter anyways. I wouldn’t be opposed to seeing the beam burst in a sequel.
The last and most useful aeon ability, the scan pulse, reveals breakable blocks, uncovers sections of the map, and shows you where items are. I quite like it as a way to get the lay of the land in a game where a map station or computer giving you the map wouldn’t make much sense, and it was quite helpful when I went for that 100% roundup, but I feel like the scan pulse also had a bit of a negative impact on the level design.
If there’s anything I can praise MercurySteam on it’s the level design, it has its flaws which I’ll address, but they’ve proven they’re competent enough to make a Metroid style game, because level design is the most important part, and the design here feels like a direct response to the linearity found in both Other M and the original Metroid II. Since the second Metroid is a fairly linear adventure and Other M left a bad taste in fans’ mouths, Samus Returns compensates (perhaps overcompensates) for this by essentially making each area of the game its own big sandbox for the player to search and explore. That alone is a step in the right direction, but much of the areas are built for later backtracking, now this is how all good Metroids work, but in other games there were somewhat circular level designs that would quickly lead you back to other locations when you get a new ability. It would feel effortless and natural, the games would subtlety lead the unknowledgeable player in the right direction.
Because of Metroid 2’s setup, that’s not really possible, so MercurySteam have added teleport stations to the game to assist in backtracking. These teleporters are pretty well placed from the perspective of an item hunter, but not so much for the player’s first time through. The areas here are bigger than even the renditions AM2R had to offer, and perhaps bigger than any previous 2D Metroids. The problem then becomes when you’re presented with this big chunk of land to explore, you go down a route and end up somewhere, then you get all you can get from that area, clear out its Metroids, and you have to backtrack sometimes a long way to go down other routes because the teleporters are usually placed in the middle of these separate routes, rarely at the beginning of an area. So, you don’t have that circular level design that takes you back to where you need to be, but you also don’t have all the teleporters activated yet.
As nice as the freedom is, this is an issue I think was handled well in DoctorM64’s AM2R. Areas were big and open, promoting exploration, but not giving you copious amounts of backtracking to do within individual areas. In M:SR you might be encouraged to teleport back to a previous area whenever you get a new power-up just because of how many inaccessible areas the scan pulse revealed to you. In AM2R this isn’t on the mind as much because there aren’t that many inaccessible rooms in previous areas, none that you’d be aware of at the time anyways, you’d also not have a convenient way to do so until you get all of Samus’ abilities, because that’s when you come across that game’s fast-travel mechanism, and I think that approach works much better.
This level design complaint also affected my will to search for Metroids. As good as the Metroid fights are, and I think the Zeta & Omega Metroid fights are superior to AM2R, the larger backtracking segments can make hunting down 40 Metroids a bit of a slog. Though, the Metroid fights is the one area the counter mechanic shines. They’re essentially quick time events, but they’re not the do or die of the fights, except for the Queen Metroid fight (and Ridley). Here Samus will pull off some flashy moves and show off how much of a badass she is (and her body language this time around is way more fitting than her awkward standing around in Other M so kudos to MercurySteam for correcting that).
Since Other M it seems Sakamoto wants to take Metroid in a more action-oriented direction. That desire alone is fine, but I think having just one action-type mechanic (the counter), especially one so effortless to pull off doesn’t really work. Like I said before it just creates an uneven dynamic with combat. What would have to be done is a complete restructuring of the way a Metroid game works and plays, sort of like if Team Ninja were able to do Other M the way they wanted, with little to no oversight from Sakamoto. Could you picture that? A Bayonetta/Revengeance style Metroid? I have no desire for that, but if it has to be done, I’d rather it be done in those styles.
Circling back to bosses, I think the Queen fight is one of the better final fights in a Metroid, definitely one of the most active fights, and the Diggernaut battle is a well-designed Prime-esque boss, the only problems I have is how long these fights are and the damage dealt. Now, I’m glad for Metroid to be harder than Zero Mission & Other M once more, but the flaw with bosses doing obscene amounts of damage is that if you take any hits early on in the aforementioned fights, you might as well just pause and reload from checkpoint, because with every new phase of a boss comes learning how to deal with that phase. So, at first it’s a lot of trial & error, constant deaths while you learn the boss. I don’t think a player should be punished that harshly for not being able to instantly figure out what to do. You don’t want every boss to be a cakewalk, but you also don’t want to keep restarting because you messed up one timing on the second phase of Diggernaut and you know you’ll need that health for the final phase.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the amiibo. I would’ve had a much harder time with the “actual” bosses of the game had I not bought them and locking content like, sound test, gallery, and extra hard mode behind an under produced $30 two-pack of toys + the cost of previous amiibo is heinous, plain & simple.
I hope that wasn’t too harsh, I tried to state as many positives as were applicable to the discussed topics, but I do hold Metroid to a high standard, and I do think the fine folks at MercurySteam have proven themselves capable. I’m putting this out here because, while they did craft a Metroid game I enjoyed, I don’t think they quite reached the bar or raised it like many reviewers seem to think, and I hope all that praise doesn’t make them complacent. If MercurySteam does take another go at Metroid I hope they can make good on the potential they’ve shown and actually raise the bar. If I had to score Metroid: Samus Returns I’d say it’s a 7.4 out of 10. A good score as I see it, and a job well done, now let’s just make sure Samus is here to stay! (Oh & FWIW the baby Metroid here is totes adorbs <3)