Metroid: Samus Returns Review

After a decade of darkness, the saga is remade anew.


Following the release of Metroid: Zero Mission in 2004, the Metroid series had reestablished itself as one of Nintendo’s bigger series.  Games were coming out on an annual basis.  An early demo of Metroid Prime Hunters was a pack-in title for the Nintendo DS.  And when it came time to announce the marquee game for their next generation console, the Nintendo Revolution, they chose Metroid Prime 3: Corruption.  Things were looking fantastic for a while… but things began taking a downturn over the following decade.

In 2005, IGN reported on a new 2D Metroid title in development for the Nintendo DS, called Metroid Dread.  Nintendo never formally announced or canceled the title, but it was kept alive and in the background by fans who pointed to rumors, magazine listings, and an easter egg in Metroid Prime 3 as irrefutable proof that the game was indeed in development.  But ultimately nothing ever came of this title and its development details have likely been sealed away in one of Nintendo’s many vaults, never to be heard from again.  

In 2010, Retro Studios took a hiatus from the Metroid Prime series to focus on a reboot of the Donkey Kong Country series, prompting Nintendo to look for other partners to keep the Metroid series relevant on consoles.  They wound up working with Team Ninja of Ninja Gaiden fame and promised to deliver a cinematic Metroid action game not quite like anything that was seen before.  It was the exact kind of thing a diehard adolescent Nintendo fan would be clamoring for during the ‘kiddy-pandering’ days of the Wii.  But upon release, the title neither fared well critically nor commercially for… various reasons I’ll detail at another time.

Other M and the failings of Dread apparently left such a bad taste in Nintendo’s mouth that they effectively put the Metroid series aside for an entire generation, and by the time they decided to bring it back, they did so not with a bang, but with the most poorly received title in the entire series: Metroid Prime: Federation Force.  A chibi multiplayer shooter released during the quiet years of the 3DS, when Nintendo was putting out clunker after clunker, before they got their groove back with the Switch.  Reviews were mixed at best, and calling the sales abysmal would be putting it mildly.

Cut to 2017, and the Metroid series has gone a full decade without a positively received game, causing the series to teeter on the brink of obscurity.  But Nintendo was riding high on the initial success of the Switch, and at their E3 showcase, they announced not one, but two Metroid titles.  Metroid Prime 4 for Nintendo Switch and a Metroid: Samus Returns for Nintendo 3DS.  

Metroid: Samus Returns was a title created through a collaboration with developer MercurySteam, who made a name for themselves by working on the Castlevania: Lords of Shadow trilogy under Konami, and were enthusiastic about taking on the Metroid series.  Discussions about making various new titles and remakes persisted for quite some time, with Nintendo not being too enthused on MerucrySteam’s original ideas, and eventually, it was agreed upon for them to remake the 1991 GameBoy title, Metroid II: Return of Samus.  

I originally wrote a review of this title back when it first released in 2017, and while my overall thoughts on it remain consistent, upon replaying it with such proximity to the 2D Metroid titles that preceded it, I think I have some more detailed analysis to offer… so I’ll do just that.

Metroid: Samus Returns Review
Platform: Nintendo 3DS (Emulated on Citra)
Developer: MercurySteam and Nintendo EPD
Publisher: Nintendo

Something I find odd and almost self-defeating about the Metroid series is how it is forever tied to the namesake of its key recurring enemy, the Metroids, while the story is so strongly centered around their extermination.  Metroid: Zero Mission involved destroying those who were using Metroids for their own means.  Super Metroid centered around the last member of the Metroid race.  While Metroid Fusion concluded with Samus carrying Metroid DNA in her body… which also makes it appropriate, however disrespectful, to call her a Metroid.  Huh.  The hunter has become that which they hunted, as it was the only way to stave of a greater predator.  How poetic.  I wonder if that was intentional.

Anyways, Samus Returns is arguably the most overt example of all of this trend, as what little explicit story there is to speak of can be surmised thusly:  The Galactic Federation is a gaggle of incompetent military space goobers, so they commission Samus to genocide all the Metroids on their homeworld of SR388 in order to prevent any intergalactic terrorists from abusing their powers ever again.  Which, beyond cutscenes where Samus stumbles across vaguely contextualized ancient Chozo ruins, styles on some bosses, and almost murders a baby, is all the story to speak of.  

This leaves the game to carry itself on its core gameplay, which can be loosely described as a general modernization of the formula founded with Super Metroid and iterated with Zero Mission and Fusion.  Meaning it is a 2D action game set in a labyrinthine locale where the player has the three core objectives.  Explore the environment, eradicate the enemies, and enhance the, um, protagonist’s abilities with a mix of optional numerical upgrades and substantial required upgrades.  All of which I’ve detailed plenty of times in my prior Metroid reviews, so I’ll just jump straight to the new stuff. 

Samus’s usual kit is expanded with Aeon abilities that make use of their own gauge to empower Samus with situational abilities.  These include Scan Pulse, which is a miraculous quality of life feature that makes environments far easier to explore and scour without bombing every possible surface in the hunt for secret items.  Lightning Armor that negates damage and extends Samus’s health limits during hectic encounters.  Along with two other abilities that… are pretty much just situational problem solvers that might have applications during boss encounters, but I never bothered trying, because I’m the sort who always buffs their defense before buffing their offense.

Most enemies now have a lunging attack that Samus can counter with a swipe of her arm cannon.  It allows Samus to swiftly dispatch the foes before her and reduce them to a minor stopgap on her genocidal quest, reinforces the idea of her being a strong veteran hunter of space monsters, and is the preferred way of dispatching enemies early on… while also being a rather temperamental mechanic.  After initiating a successful counter against a common enemy, a small animation plays where Samus knocks the foe backwards, dazing them and leaving them vulnerable to an attack.  If the player immediately presses the attack button, then the enemy is instantly defeated and they burst into a cloud of restorative goodies.  But if the player moves the analog stick or jumps after the attack, then they lose the opportunity to one-hit kill the foe before them and need to deal the regular amount of damage to defeat the foe which, at least when starting out, requires a lot of energy-based gunfire.  

This encourages players to go through areas defensively, stand before enemies, waiting for their clearly choreographed counter-able attacks, and dispatching them methodically.  This is the safest and most direct way to get through these areas in most instances and makes the process of clearing a room or hallway of enemies something akin to a periodic quick time event rather than a bout of combat that requires precise maneuvering.  There are naturally exceptions but remains the standard until Samus acquires the spazer beam, a wider and far more powerful beam, which makes defeating enemies using basic attacks far easier because of its wider range and enhanced power.  Even later, once Samus gets the plasma beam and screw attack, the counter becomes something of an afterthought when fighting enemies, as firing the shoot button is just faster.  

Another reason why shooting is preferred during the latter game is due to how, instead of being limited to only aiming in 8 directions, Samus can now aim in a full 360 degrees.  This is an incredibly appreciated feature that makes movement, combat, and the general game flow a lot smoother than its predecessors.  However, the fact that the game does not support dual analog controls, on account of being a 3DS game, does make aiming something of a sacrifice.  Because if you are aiming, then you cannot readily avoid attacks unless you stop aiming, and in order to hit the weak spots of most enemies, especially early on, you need to aim.  

In execution, I don’t really mind this trade-off as the game is ultimately balanced around this limitation, but you know if this game was designed for a modern console that the game would have mapped the aiming to the right stick, allowing for a smoother experience.  But you know what the game wasn’t balanced around?  Pretty much anyone who isn’t a Metroid, Metroidvania, or 2D action game veteran.

In short, the enemies in this game hit harder than any enemies before in the series, and the same is true for the bosses.  Early on, bosses can easily overpower Samus with the sheer magnitude of their attack damage, and this does not let up even during the endgame.  Where, by my estimation, common enemies can shave off roughly 10% of Samus’s max health, while bosses have at least one move that can cleave away 30% in a single blow. 

Now, I certainly don’t mind a game putting forward a good challenge, and in the case of Samus Returns, I actually appreciated the difficulty, resistance, and tension of most boss fights, forcing me to memorize patterns and learn the inner workings of the surrounding enemies.  However, I continuously had to remind myself that I wasn’t playing on the game’s hard mode whenever I saw the massive damage numbers that followed even something as innocuous as brushing up against the boss.  It’s not consistent with the series, and for a title that was meant to draw in new fans, I have to ask why there doesn’t exist at least an option to play through the game with scaled-down damage numbers, thus increasing the tolerance of error to something more in line with the 2D Metroid games that preceded it.  

But if I did have to say something good about this new approach to difficulty, it is paired with a checkpoint system, allowing players to retry from a place earlier than their last save point.  It is a nice modern touch and a godsend in a game with over 40 (mostly repeated) boss battles, but the game never conveys what these checkpoints are, when they are made, and how far back they will send players.  It is a minor thing, but the lack of clarity caused me to never really trust this system, so I wound up just placing a save state before every boss instead.  

The checkpoint system is definitely among the more minor incidental design hiccups I found throughout this game, but it’s far from the only one.  For example, the face button control scheme is unlike any Metroid game before it, mapping jump to B, shoot to Y, and the new Aeon ability to A.  The ice beam, a series stable, serves as a basic puzzle solver after its introduction until the 30% mark, only to be forgotten about until the 90% mark, where it is needed to defeat a certain enemy.  The game makes no effort to imply that larva Metroids can only be killed when frozen, so if you are not familiar with the series, you have no way of realizing this without rampant experimentation.

Samus now has the ability to project herself forward using a power bomb and the spider ball ability, which was never seen in prior games and is never tutorialized. Higher-level skills like wall jumping and bomb jumping return here and feel better than ever before, but they are also never tutorialized in any way.  And the one chase sequence around the 60% mark is by far the hardest and most demanding section in the entire game, coming out of nowhere and demanding a level of platforming precision that is required nowhere else in the entire game

These small quibbles, and more I assuredly forgot to write down in my notes, pile up during the duration of the game, souring the experience and preventing the game from reaching the lofty qualitative highs it comes so close to reaching.  They are only problems when cluttered up and compiled together, but of all the criticisms I could levy towards Samus Returns, the biggest one is its approach to environments.  

Well, perhaps I should rephrase that.  The actual maps and general level design of Samus Returns is quite good by my estimation.  Areas have a nice flow to them, items are well spaced out, and the environments are fun to both explore and move through.  However, in capturing the spirit of the series, the game misses two core components that makes the series what it is.  Backtracking and environmental design.  

Each area is a cluster of explorable rooms of all shapes and sizes, but beyond clearly indicated elevators and teleportation stations, they all may as well exist in their own isolated world, lacking alternative paths to tie them together, or pushing the player to backtrack from one area to access another.  Instead, they are shoveled through the boringly named Areas 1 through 8.  This robs the title of the same backtracking that people have come to know and love about the series, and while there are numerous upgrades in each area that require revisiting to obtain, players are encouraged to not bother with revisiting areas until the 85% point of the game, where they can obtain every missing item… except for 4, which players can only get after the 95% mark.

I don’t think this is a bad change, as it keeps the game more focused, there is plenty of minor backtracking and shortcut making in each isolated area, and with a world this huge, it would be bothersome if the game did force players to schlep back from area 5 to area 1.  It’s different, sure, but this is how Metroid II worked, but significantly better than whatever my 8-years-old recollections of that game tell me.  What doesn’t work as well, however, is the visual design of these locales.

Metroid is a series where the environments are almost as important as any of its mechanics.  From the classic and iterated locations of Brinstar and Norfair, the themed sectors of Fusion, or the vivid and lavishly constructed environments of the Metroid Prime series.  It is a series with no shortage of A+ environmental designs and memorable locations… but in Samus Returns, I would be hard-pressed to think of 5 specific locations off the top of my head.  

No environment in the game is given a clear or descriptive name.  No environment is clearly established beyond the obvious layer of the final Metroid.  And none of the designated areas have a fully consistent biome or visual identifier to call their own, causing them to mix and match together.  Environments are just 3D backgrounds almost randomly splayed against the consistently rocky foreground of the base game, and just when it seems like an area is settling on a theme, it will veer into something different entirely.

This is not a technical failing, as the backgrounds are detailed, diverse, and do a lot to establish the world of SR388 as a living place with a history behind it.  This is a failure to contextualize and use these visual assets appropriately, a failure to establish a mood, theme, or purpose to these environments, and a failure to make the world feel like a place, rather than a collection of backgrounds.  Because they are.  You might see unique animals in the background, but they never show up anywhere.  You can be traveling besides an ancient temple or in a sci-fi research station, yet the ground is forever made of stone, you cannot interact with the backgrounds at all, and there is no clear lore to grasp from these environments, so what good are they?  

Well, they are pretty, I’ll give them that.  Though, when describing this game as pretty or good in a visual sense, I need to include a caveat and make an aside about my stance on graphics and upscaling.

While the generation is derided as being ugly in some circles, I actually consider most of the early 3D era to be quite fetching when properly upscaled, as when you smooth out the polygons, unblur the textures, and balloon the resolution into the HD range, you fundamentally clean and enhance the look of many older games.  Some consider this to be ugly or against what these games were meant to be, but I view this as a way to better appreciate and admire how older games were constructed, presenting the details before you without the grime of technical limitations.  It’s like the difference between watching a VHS copy of a film and a Blu-Ray.  

Unfortunately, the Citra emulator is a touch limited with its graphical adjustment features, and I could not find a way to truly unblur or unfilter the textures.  I took advantage of the emulator’s various graphical features, but either due to how the game was compressed onto the 3DS hardware or just how Citra emulates things, these screenshots were the best I could get this game looking while keeping it in a playable state, with both screens side-by-side.  Which is quite simply the game running at 720p with FXAA post-processing applied.  

Even with these limitations, I still found the game to look quite good for the most part.  The general art design, enemies, and animations are all great considering the limitations of the original hardware.  And with the camera pulled back so far, the blurry textures weren’t much of a distraction for me.  However, I would still love to see either a better emulation in the future or possibly an AI-upscaled texture pack to make the game look all fresh and impressive.  Because when the textures are by innately a mesh of potatoey garbage, the only way to make them look crisp and fly is to recreate them using the magic of modern technology.

With regards to performance, the game ran well on current version 1629 of Citra, retaining a mostly consistent 30 frames per second, but I did encounter a few performance hiccups when in busier areas, and the audio always desynced for a second or two whenever I resumed the emulation or made a save state.  It was not optimal, but it’s not persistent enough for me to find it annoying.  If anything, I weirdly appreciate it when games chug in their performance for seconds at a time.

Hopping back to audio kerfuffles, let’s talk about the music.  The soundtrack or Samus Returns is largely an atmospheric one, with every area having its own breed of ambiance to it, and the soundtrack flaring up for booming boss themes and, bizarrely, a reprisal of the Magmoor Caverns theme from Metroid Prime whenever Samus happens across a ‘hot room’.  

The only time I perked up and focused on the music was when it was a theme I recognized from prior games, or something with a bit more presence to it, like the area 7 theme.  Beyond that, the music really did not stick out to me over the sound effects, being passive and unassuming to the point where I did not realize that the music changed by visiting each area… but that could say more about my toilet-tier perception than the game itself.  

To conclude this vaguely directed and cobbled together compilation of thoughts, Metroid: Samus Returns has numerous areas where it is lacking in, but the developers at Nintendo and MercurySteam managed to successfully bring the Metroid series forward, amounting to what is probably my favorite 2D Metroid after Super.  

You can tell this title was forged by talented people with a passion and love for the prior titles, and who were both rigorously studying what made the earlier incarnations what they were.  The movement, sense of progression, and overall flow of the game kept me playing it in large chunks, going from objective to objective, while relishing in the sense of power that came with every upgrade.  From the joys of scouring the walls of each area to the intense bouts of dexterity and determination against a new boss, the game has no shortage of quality moments and instances where it absolutely nails what I want from this series, and this genre as a whole.  

Samus Returns could greatly benefit from a proper remaster or enhancement to smooth out some of its more irksome edges, or in lieu of that, a full-on successor by MercurySteam now that they’ve proven they have what it takes to make a Metroid title, and a damn good one at that.  I could easily see them putting out another quality remake like this, or preferably a wholly original game based around their strengths as a developer.  

Unfortunately, following this 3DS swansong, Nintendo has been quiet about the Metroid series beyond the much-troubled Prime 4, and after three years there is no indication if MercurySteam is still working on the series.  It sucks to be in this nebulous state, but that’s just how this industry goes sometimes.

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