Metroid: Samus Returns review

An all-new Metroid II.

It's been an age since a proper Metroid game last graced a Nintendo console. Well, I say "graced." Metroid: Other M for the Wii traded in a lot of series lead Samus Aran's stoic bounty hunter cred for awkward melodrama. It wasn't a good fit. And last year's Federation Force... just straight up doesn't count.

Metroid: Samus Returns is not a Federation Force style cheap cash-in. It feels, in fact, like an intentional foil to Other M. It's as close to a total back-to-basics callback as you'll get without dredging up a copy of Metroid: Zero Mission for the Gameboy Advance. That's because Samus Returns is itself a remake of Metroid II: Return of Samus for the original Gameboy. Although quite a lot has changed in the 26 years since that sequel.

The essential framework is still there. Samus hits up SR388, home planet of the parasitic Metroids, to extinct-ify the dangerous species once and for all. There are 42 of the buggers speckled across multiple zones that you map out over time. In between, you collect new weapons and powers that make previously inaccessible areas and hidden treasures... well, accessible.

That wasn't always the case in the original Metroid II. That game skimped on some key elements of the series — like the all-important graph paper map — on account of being a Gameboy game. The handheld struggled to fit Nintendo's chunky sprites, too, giving the whole product a labyrinthine and claustrophobic feel. In short, it wasn't very good. Which makes it exactly the kind of entry in a beloved franchise ripe for this kind or remake.

The 2.5D Samus Returns now shows a reasonable angle of the action and sports a chartable map. Hooray! More than that, though, developer MercurySteam has basically made an entirely new game within the existing framework of the original. There are new powers, weapons, bosses, and entire combat mechanics. Chief among these is a melee parry that lets Samus stun enemies just before an attack.

It's a simple addition, but Samus Returns is a simple game. There's almost no story to speak of, besides the introductory conceit. Samus herself never speaks. There's no grand plot to foil or uncover — just caverns to explore and Metroid bosses to study for attack patterns and kill.

The simplicity works wonders, thanks to some equally wonderful pacing. Every new zone introduces one to two new powers that unlock the rest of the area, plus one to a dozen mini-bosses that can usually be tackled in any order. Samus is a total juggernaut by the end of the game — capable of shooting through walls, bombing every enemy in a room to dust, and even manipulating time. But along the way, Samus Returns uses its plentiful bosses to ratchet the difficulty up one notch at a time in response to your growing power.

The game's 42 Metroids, which make up the bulk of bosses, are actually split into just a handful of metamorphosed types — from insectoid imps that only know how to charge you, to giant lizards that fire streams of napalm. You'll fight the same "type" or two a dozen times throughout the game. Maybe that sounds repetitive, but the same scuffle feels very different when you have an Ice Beam and energy shields than when you were just blasting away with missiles.

Specifically, you feel a lot more capable. Not just because you can literally do and/or take more damage, but because you've slowly begun to memorize the boss's patterns: when to dodge, when to curl up into the iconic Morph Ball, or when specific visual tells warn you it's time to parry.

That feeling lasts for a few fights. That's about when Samus Returns introduces a new Metroid type that needs to be studied all over again. The power ramp resets and you get to have the feeling of becoming all-powerful all over again.

That "two steps forward, one step back" sense of growth remains in almost perfect balance throughout the game. There's just enough resource management to make exploring for spatial puzzles, which hide optional upgrades like higher maximum ammo and health, worth it. Boss patterns are just complicated enough to make you feel like you've mastered them before moving on to something new — justifying the recurring encounters.

Samus Returns' repeating patterns, without much explicit plot to get in the way, put me in an relaxing, all-action flow state as if I were playing dungeon roulette in Final Fantasy XIV, or racing to public quests in Destiny 2. Yet it's a tight, 10- to 15-hour (depending on how much secret hunting you do) single-player game about exploration.

This isn't to say Samus Returns lacks personality. Its 3D graphics on a 2D plane are about as fuzzy and muted as you’d expect a 3D game running on the 3DS to be in late 2017. But they do allow for some dynamic camera shots. Parrying bosses, for instance, triggers a stylish, swinging shot of Samus grappling with her foe — all while you hammer on the missile button for free hits. It's a little touch that goes a long way, with incredibly cathartic payoff during one of the game's hardest boss battles.

That's Samus Returns through-and-through. It's a string of smartly woven "little touches." A touch of mandatory exploration leads to growing power, which ends with a satisfying string of bosses. Rinse and repeat, or take a break to revisit old zones for optional upgrades. It's pure Metroid with none of the melodramatic frills, but all of the mechanical ones that make a would-be cult classic feel worthy of returning to in the modern day.

Verdict: Yes