Saturday, September 30, 2017

Metroid: Samus Returns (Review)

Metroid is back! After completing Samus Returns in both Normal and Fusion Mode, it's time to give the newest entry in the franchise a little review.

It's the first traditional side-scrolling Metroid experience since Zero Mission in 2004, which was a remake of the first Metroid game on the GameBoy Advance. And because Metroid II - Return of Samus always felt quite similar to the first game, it was only a matter of time, until we would see a remake of the GameBoy classic as well. In fact last year, for the 30th Anniversary of Metroid, the fan project Another Metroid 2 Remake aimed to deliver the same thing, but now we've gotten the official version developed by MercurySteam and produced by Yoshio Sakamoto, who hasn't touched the franchise since Metroid: Other M in 2010, which wasn't received all that well.

So, it has been seven years since the last main Metroid game and after Metroid Prime: Federation Force, which was released last year, the Nintendo 3DS again proves to be the platform where Metroid finally returns. And in this case it worked out really well. The graphics look pretty nice and the 3D helps you to distinguish between what's important and what's in the background, which offers lots of interesting world details. It's the kind of 3DS game where you want the 3D to be turned on all the time, similar to A Link Between Worlds.

For this the entire upper screen has been kept clear and all the typical HUD elements were moved to the touchscreen, where you can also view the map at all times and switch between weapon types. Only downside is that the game seems to run at 30fps only.

Music and sound are quite good as well, but don't provide the top-notch quality that you would expect from a Nintendo game. For what it's worth, they managed to mix the ambient tracks of the GameBoy classic into some atmospheric new music pieces, which is quite awesome, but at the same time they just recycled some music from the Metroid Prime Trilogy for some low effort. It's still quite a good soundtrack overall and even offers some fine new tunes. However, some sound effects, like those of the new Teleport Stations, have an acoustic noise to them, which makes listening to the game not always that pleasant. But for the most part it's pretty great.

What's probably more important than how the game looks and sounds, is how it plays. And the controls might take some time before you get used to them. You can toggle between Free Aim and Missiles Mode with the L and R shoulder buttons, you can (de)activate the four new Aeion abilities with A, which you select with the D-Pad at beforehand. You shoot with Y, you jump with B and you use the new Melee Counter with X. You also switch between weapon types with the touchscreen, while touching the map makes you instantly go into Morph Ball mode, where otherwise you would need to crouch first. It all feels quite convoluted in the beginning, where it's easy to confuse things with all the necessary toggling. But the more you play, the more you get a feel for  why the controls are the way they are and learn to appreciate them. Still, some options for the controls would have been nice. And for New Nintendo 3DS owners they should have utilized the ZL and ZR buttons in some way, for example for the instant Morph Ball.

In the very least the game plays very smoothly. Especially Wall Jumps and Space Jumps were never as easy to perform, which almost makes you wish that Super Metroid will get a remake next. Even the Grapple Beam works very well in a way, where you never actually have to manually switch to the beam. Aiming at something where the Grapple Beam can attach to it will automatically activate it (your laser sight will then be blue to signal this).

Let's get more into detail with what's new here. With the Free Aim you can utilize the 360° precision of the Slide Pad for the cost of your mobility. A laser sight makes it easy to find your target and it even turns red then (or blue for grapple objects, as aforementioned). In boss fights it's a somewhat of a "risk vs. reward" mechanic, because it makes it easier for you to hit the designated weak spots, but it will also be easier for the boss to hit you, while you're standing still on the ground. And there are many boss fights in this game where this plays a role.

The Melee Counter also sounds like a good addition on the paper. Enemies running into you can be quite the annoyance (which was especially problematic in Another Metroid 2 Remake), where this new move seems to be perfect answer. Problem is that the Melee Counter suffers from a similar illness how Skyward Sword treated its motion controls. Now, almost all the enemies, even small crawlers, charge into you. They blink right before the charge attack to signalize that now it's time to use your Melee Counter, where this whole technique feels more like a quick time event than a proper addition to Samus' fighting skills. And if you screw up, you get hurt badly. This is quite annoying in the beginning, but it gets better later in the game, where your attacks get so strong that you can quickly take out enemies, before they can even charge. And with the bosses it's often treated as another "risk vs. reward" mechanic, where it's easier to dodge their melee attacks with jumps, but facing them might result in a cool action sequence, where Samus blasts the hell out of her enemies in close combat.

Completely new are also the four Aeion Abilities - Scan Pulse, Lightning Armor, Beam Burst and Phase Drift. They all consume so called "Aeion", an energy refilled via yellow orbs that you get from successfully fighting enemies. Scan Pulse uncovers a nine-by-nine area on your map around you and reveals hidden secrets, as well as breakable blocks on your upper screen. It's kind of a more practical version of the X-Ray Scope from Super Metroid, where you also won't need maps from the internet anymore to find everything. Any scanned area will be permanently marked on your map, though, so some players might want to have scanned every possible square, while others might want to avoid to use the Scan Pulse at all.

The Lightning Armor and Beam Burst offer the typical defensive and offensive upgrades, which you often find in games like this (e.g. different Armor, Magic Rings or Spirit abilities in Zelda games). Here you can use both at the same time and sometimes it's even necessary to use them to get through hazardous environments or to deal with tough enemies that otherwise can only be damaged with powerful weapons that you might not even have yet.

Last and maybe least there's also the "Phase Drift", which rapidly consumes your Aeion to slow down time. Primarily this gets used for puzzles with those breakable blocks that no one really liked in any Metroid game ever. In this way it's even a fine mechanic, because you finally have a way to successfully deal with these blocks without them being totally annoying. But because of that you will face more of these blocks than ever before at the cost of your Aeion. Luckily, often there's a Big Aeion Orb nearby, which completely refills your Aeion Meter, so you can try again right away.

That's really it for new things that got introduced to the series. Similar to Zero Mission, Samus Returns also adds a couple of staple items, which weren't present in the original GameBoy game – the Grapple Beam, Super Missiles, Power Bombs and the Gravity Suit. The Wave, Spazer and Plasma Beams now also stack, while the Ice Beam is kept a separate tool next to the Grapple Beam, which you have to select via the touchscreen. This does make sense at first, but it feels a little useless later in the game, where freezing enemies doesn't help much and Missiles tend to be more effective against the stronger Metroid variants.

Surprisingly, the Speed Booster doesn't make a return here. It essentially got replaced by the Phase Drift, while there's also a new hidden technique to emulate a Ballspark, where you have to combine the Spider Ball with Power Bombs. It's much easier to perform and it feels like a blessing that you don't have to pull of all those finger acrobatics anymore that were required for some expansions in Zero Mission. But this trick isn't documented in the game anywhere and there are no funny animals around to teach it to you, so some players might even expect at first that the Speed Booster is still hidden somewhere...

By the way, the Spider Ball feels so good and useful in this game that it's almost a shame that it never was present in any of the other 2D Metroid games.

Even with some small flaws here and there, overall this game plays quite well and offers the classic Metroid experience that you'd want. But MercurySteam also did quite a good job at translating the world of SR388 into something more, while at the same time staying mostly faithful to the GameBoy classic. It feels like a much larger world now, but at the core you are able to recognize the different areas from the original and it follows the linear design, where you move from one area to the next, hunting down all the Metroids in one area.

It's just much more fleshed out and it also adds new lava and under water sections, which Metroid II - Return of Samus didn't have. In there classic music pieces from Super Metroid are played, which is all quite nice, but it feels about as original as adding the Gravity Suit along with it. Some of the later areas also feel a little bit too different from their originals, where even some of the environmental story telling is lost in translation, but the remake was very busy with adding many new details of its own, especially in the beautiful backgrounds.

Unlike the original game there's also quite some backtracking involved, but it introduced the new Teleport Stations to make it easier to move between the different areas. A similar comfort has been offered by the Gunship ports in Metroid Prime 3: Corruption, but overall this has the potential to become a new staple in the series and makes you wonder, why Metroid games didn't have this before.

A big part of what made Metroid II - Return of Samus special within the series were the enemies, especially experiencing the full life cycle of the eponymous Metroid creature. And from the basic Hornoads up to the Metroid Queen the enemies of SR388 surely have evolved quite a lot, all offering new attacks and plenty of surprises. For example the Autoad robot enemies actually feel threatening in this game, because they emit a blast that temporarily disables your Aeion. And of course the different Metroid are much more threatening in the remake and assault you with various fire attacks for example.

They also introduced the new Diggernaut boss enemy, which has an amazing build-up and offers a crazy fight, where you really have to master all the individual steps. But it's quite satisfying, if you finally manage to beat this boss on all difficulties.

But that's not all, similar to Zero Mission they added a little something to the game to extend the experience...

Completing the game is also not all that convoluted than it was in Zero Mission. From the beginning on you can see the completion percentage for every individual area, while the different endings are entirely based on your time, but not the completion rate. The latter unlocks a gallery with "Chozo Memories" piece by piece and that's really it.

Additional galleries and the "Fusion Mode" difficulty have to be unlocked via amiibo after the game was beaten once. And that is certainly one of the bigger amiibo scams that Nintendo tried over the years, because normally you would expect such features to be unlocked without the necessity of tracking down four different amiibo figurines. There's a "Hard Mode" unlocked for everyone else, but in Fusion Mode enemies deal even more damage and you get to play in the Fusion Suit from Metroid Fusion.


Samus Returns is a return to form for the Metroid series. MercurySteam did a good job of translating the GameBoy classic onto the Nintendo 3DS and added everything to make it the full 2D Metroid experience that fans would want. There are some rough edges here and there, but it offers the playability and the replay value of a very good Metroid game.

It also will make you long for more and luckily it even teases potential new Metroid titles (more about that later on), where we can only hope that MercurySteam is already onto the job.

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