Metroid: Samus Returns Review

It’s kind of surreal to be playing a new 2D Metroid game like this.  I mean, it’s been 13 years since Zero Mission last scratched that itch, and it’s been a decade since the series had a genuinely good game.  Still, after so much clamoring and waiting, a new classic-style entry in the series was finally released.  A remake technically, but one so thoroughly rebuilt and reworked that it may as well be an entirely new title.  And as a new title, it is good, but not without its faults.

Metroid: Samus Returns Review
Platform: 3DS
Developer: MercurySteam and Nintendo EAD
Publisher: Nintendo

Metroid: Samus Returns functions as a remake of similarly named Metroid II: Return of Samus, which is often considered the black sheep of the series seeing as how it was centered around finding and exterminating the Metroid species on their home planet of SR388, and featured more subdued backtracking and exploration elements, likely due to the hardware limitations of the original Game Boy.  Samus Returns naturally follows a similar premise, but does away with a lot of the dated gameplay and structure from the original, instead choosing to build off of more contemporary entries in the series, namely Super Metroid, Fusion, and Zero Mission, while trying to both modernize the series slightly and pay tribute to what made this particular entry unique.

As such, it should come as no surprise that the core essence of the aforementioned titles is captured here, and captured excellently.  The world is a labyrinthine and isolating series of rooms, each filled with their own form of enemies and obstacles, as well as a large quantity of secrets to uncover.  Most of which are only obtainable with the use of a specific ability that Samus acquires throughout the game.  This gives the abilities a dual purpose, as they not only make Samus more powerful, mobile, and capable than before, but they also allow her to seek out further improvements and interact with the world in more ways.  

It’s a very specific format that spawned an entire genre, and while there are many imitators, there is something about the subtleties found throughout the series, Samus Returns included, that just feels right.  The specific and streamlined way new abilities work, the way and pace in which they are distributed throughout the game, and the fact that Samus is still capable of basic functions even without getting these abilities.  Most of which are admittedly brought over from past titles, but the ensemble of abilities feels like a best of collection from the series’ history and works together as well as they should.

It all culminates in Samus going from a frail and vulnerable character with only the abilities to jump and shoot into one capable of full relentless destruction, able to continuously float through the air.  Her body morphed into an electric ball of death and destruction.  Her simple pea shooter upgraded into a wide laser that tears through enemies in just a few shots.  It makes the journey, the hunt for upgrades, which are thankfully conveniently marked on the immeasurably useful map system, all the more thrilling, exciting, and rewarding.  This process, this method of exploring, traversing and now charting through these areas, finding goodies both minor and major as time goes on, is a gameplay loop that appeals to me on a base level, and I honestly cannot praise it enough.

However, most of that could also be said about other titles in the series, and Samus Returns does bring a few new elements to the series.  New inclusions can be seen in the introduction of 360 degree aiming, which adds a level of precision to the basic gameplay, while also asking the player to choose between mobility and precision due to the inability to properly move and shoot at the same time.  A limitation the game is clearly designed around.  A counter system that allows Samus to whack a charging enemy away with her arm cannot, dazing them and leaving them open for massive damage.  It is a useful and powerful ability that nevertheless trivializes a lot of enemies with charge attacks, and most of them do, and is is made very clear when the counter should be performed.  

These changes are also accompanied by the Aeon system, which grants Samus an additional energy bar that can be expanded upon and used to access four new abilities.  Each of which are very useful in a pinch, though I must admit that I mostly stuck with the ability to more easily fill out the map, as there are no map rooms in Samus Returns, and the ability that granted Samus additional armor, making boss battles easier.

Bosses are regular and relentless threats, with each Metroid or unique boss encounter serving as a dire conflict where a few missteps can result in failure and enemies are often ferocious in their attack patterns, rapidly switching from move to move.  It is certainly a far cry from the more mundane and routine battles from the original entry.  While I can spin these battles in a positive light, claiming that they are skill demanding encounters that require Perseverance, pattern recognition, and patience, they are unfortunately the best example of what I feel is the biggest issue with Samus Returns, its difficulty.  

I have no problem with difficulty in concept.  I understand the rewarding nature of a difficult game, and while my proficiency in them is not very high, I am happy to try again and again when challenge comes approaching.  However, the difficulty in Samus Returns for me was based on two factors.  Firstly, it can often be difficult to properly damage bosses, due to how most bosses are very mobile, have very small hitboxes that require precision, and the most effective means of damage dealing, missiles, have a short delay before being fired.  And secondly, the numbers are really weighed against Samus.

Metroids now take significantly more shots to defeat, while Samus herself is far weaker than she used to be.  Perhaps not in Metroid II, as I have not looked up damage numbers from that game, but based on my far better recollection of Super, Fusion, and Zero Mission, Samus should not be taking over 1 energy tank of damage per hit even when up against the latter echelon of bosses, let alone bosses encountered mid-game.  Combine this with the fact that there are only 10 Energy Tanks, and the whole situation simply becomes borderline absurd.  I know that Metroid II only had 5 Energy Tanks, but every other mainline Metroid game released after that had far more Energy Tanks, and even with that increased health capacity, they never went this overboard with damage.  They never had one attack that could deal 4 Energy Tanks worth of damage.  

Now, I would be forgiving of this if this were just indicative of a harder difficulty mode, but I was playing on the easiest difficulty, Normal, and just getting through that was still a substantial challenge that I was only able to endure due to pattern memorization and repetition.  A process that the game ultimately does encourage, as there is a checkpoint before every boss encounter, but this approach to difficulty is just not something I want to be the norm in a Metroid game.  As an optional hard mode, sure, but not as the default and easiest difficulty.  It makes me reluctant to ever play this game again because of this.  Though, another big part of that is because the game is on the 3DS.  

To deviate into an only somewhat related tirade, I really want to talk about the hardware that I played this game on.  I admittedly made the mistake to get the original launch 3DS back in 2011, and the system has been updated considerably since then, but playing an intensive action game on this thing really points out how badly this thing is designed.  The shoulder buttons are incredibly tiny.  The volume slider is easy to rub against with one’s left hand.  The system digs into the player’s left palm if they try to hold it like a traditional controller,thereby making it hard to play games for a long period of time without getting a sore hand.  The circle pad easily rubs off the system when sweaty palms are mixed with intensive stick motions.  The small screen with it slow resolution makes it difficult to perceive detailed when the camera zooms out.  The way in which players take screenshots for this game is just convoluted, requiring them to connect to Miiverse every time they want to take one screenshot!

Getting back on track, Samus Returns contains the largest world of any 2D entry, and it is also the least interesting to me.  Due to the lightly detailed origins of the environment from the GameBoy original, the developers were given an opportunity to flesh out and make the world of SR388 more distinctive with environments that are actually memorable.  However, the various areas that make up the planet’s labyrinthine caverns are not the most memorable of clear.  Areas do not have distinct themes, and are easy to mistake for one another as such.  I cannot immediately say how Area 2 and 6 were distinctive in the same way I can easily distinguish between Norfair or Brinstar, or even Sectors 3 and 5 from Fusion.  

To compound this issue, the game bizarrely does not implement much in the way of backtracking.  While some backtracking is required to find all the Metroids in an area, after they are all exterminated and the path to the next area is made clear, there is no reason to ever return other than to obtain a few unobtained items or access small secret areas.  This is quite unfortunate considering how backtracking is one of my favorite things about Metroid games.  I love needing to revisit areas, using newly obtained powers to locate previously unattainable secrets, and finding new shortcuts to more easily get past familiar environments.  It goes so far against this idea that the game actually includes a teleporter system, as the developers knew how hard and tedious backtracking would be otherwise, due to the linear order in which these environments are otherwise accessed.  

There are some other minor hang ups I have about the game.  Little things such as how the grapple beam is still as hard to use as it was in Super Metroid, which is to say, annoyingly so.  How the ice beam is not part of Samus’ upgraded base attack, and is not upgraded as such, yet is the only way to damage Metroids beyond using missiles.  How the game never properly explains how if Samus uses the spider ball in conjunction with the power bomb, something never before seen in the series, she can be propelled across massive stretches of land.  How there is no proper recharge area with health, missile, warp, and save spots all next to each other.  How bosses only drop a meager amount of resources upon being defeated, in spite of their difficulty.  Or how the buttons are all mapped so that B is jump and Y is shoot.  When I think it really should be A and B.

As for the presentation, Samus Returns boasts a fairly detailed world with a lot of care placed into its general construction, backgrounds, enemy designs, and animations.  MercurySteam as a talented developer when it comes to making visually impressive titles, and that remains true here.  Or at least it would if not for the limited capabilities of the 3DS, which have become increasingly obvious as the system has been aging into obsolescence  The low resolution screen of the system, limited amount of polygons, and low resolution textures all make it harder to visually appreciate this game, and honestly make me hope that some sort of HD remaster of this game is underway, similar to what happened with MercurySteam’s prior 3DS title, Castlevania: Lords of Shadow – Mirror of Fate.

I have a fair amount of issues with Samus Returns, mostly relating to its world design and difficulty.  However, the developers understand the series where it really counts, and while this new entry is not my favorite by any stretch, it is a true return to form, and I am absolutely thrilled that I was able to see it through.  I can only hope that this title does well enough to warrant and justify more entries, because if Samus Returns is any indication, the series has a very promising future.

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