Game Review: Is Metroid: Samus Returns a Return to Game Greatness?

Photo courtesy of Nintendo For a while there, Nintendo seemed to abandon the Metroid franchise. When the 30th anniversary of Metroid came and went last year without a word from Nintendo, most thought the series forgotten or even dead. So when two new Metroid games were announced at this year’s E3, Nintendo finally reaffirmed their commitment to the franchise. With Metroid: Samus Returns, they've proven they still have the chops to deliver a great Metroid game. Metroid: Samus Returns is appropriately named, not only as a way to signal the return of the titular heroine after an extended absence, but also because it is a remake of the 1991 Game Boy title Metroid II: The Return of SamusMetroid:Samus Returns is a side-scrolling action-adventure game that maintains the setting, story and general level structure of Metroid II: The Return of Samus. It is remade entirely from the ground up with added abilities, bosses, and loads of other modern upgrades and quality of life features the monochrome original lacked. Samus is tasked with destroying all of the Metroids on planet SR388 and in typical Metroid fashion, she must collect items and power-ups in order to progress past obstacles to hunt down and destroy the 40 Metroids scattered over 8 areas. Photo courtesy of Nintendo Samus is not only armed with her trusty arm cannon and the ability to morph into a ball to fit into tight spaces, but she can acquire different power-ups that are unlocked through exploration. These power-ups and different items allow Samus to access areas that may have been previously inaccessible, which is a staple of the Metroid series. For instance, Samus may unlock the ability to jump higher to reach ledges that she couldn’t before, or find a grappling beam to move obstacles and swing across gaps. In addition to the typical Metroid items and abilities, there are also new “Aeion” abilities which give Samus access to enhancements she hasn’t had in a Metroid game before. Phase Drift slows time, allowing passage over breakable ground; Lightning Armor mitigates damage at the cost of Aeion; Scan Pulse maps the surrounding area and reveals secrets; and Beam Burst is a rapid-fire arm-cannon enhancement to dispatch foes or progress past certain obstacles. Photo courtesy of Nintendo The screenshots don’t do it justice because Metroid: Samus Returns looks great in 3D or 2D and it feels great to play. It runs incredibly smoothly with very few slowdowns and the movement and combat is tight. Unfortunately, character movement is locked to the circle pad with no discernible way to reconfigure it to the d-pad. This makes some of the more precise platforming moments and some boss fights a little more frustrating than they should be. The second screen is utilized well.  Most of the bottom screen is dedicated to a real-time map of the area Samus is in, making navigating the labyrinthine corridors of SR388 a little more manageable. The touch screen also serves as the way to switch between weapons. I was able to get used to switching between beams using the touch screen quite easily, but switching between missiles and super missiles wasn’t so easy for me. To fire missiles you must hold the right shoulder button, and if you want to switch to super missiles you must press the appropriate place on the touchscreen while holding the shoulder button down. I found this to be cumbersome in high-action situations. Photo courtesy of Nintendo In addition to occasionally awkward controls, a downside to the game is that there are only a few enemy types in Samus Returns. There are the Metroids, of course, that have grown into the various stages of their life cycle. As the game progresses, the Metroids start to get bigger and meaner, many of them serving as bosses and mini-bosses. Most of the other enemy types are just variations on the same few that you run into throughout the game. The different areas, while distinct in their own ways, all house the same few enemy types with few exceptions. Luckily, there have been some surprise boss encounters added into the remake, as well as some added hazards and encounters. These new bosses are surprisingly tough and often take a long time to dispatch. Failure means having to start the encounter from the beginning, but each boss has a movement pattern that can be learned, making them fair and fun. Photo courtesy of Nintendo Metroid: Samus Returns also utilizes Amiibo to unlock certain items and features. While Amiibo are not necessary, it’s cruel for Nintendo to lock gameplay modes behind a paywall. Even worse, this paywall is a scarce item that is hard to find at retail prices. “Fusion mode,” a game mode wherein Samus dons the Fusion suit and faces harder challenges in the “normal” and “hard” game modes is only unlockable with a specific Amiibo. Due to its scarcity, some resellers are selling just that specific Metroid Amiibo at prices that are almost twice the price of the game itself. I’m excited the Metroid series is back. Despite questionable Amiibo practices, occasionally awkward controls and lack of enemy variety, Metroid: Samus Returns is a triumphant return for Nintendo’s armored bounty hunter. If Nintendo continues to release Metroid games of the same quality as Metroid: Samus Returns, it will be a new golden age for a franchise that was a distant memory only a year ago. Metroid: Samus Returns is available now on Nintendo 3DS family of systems.
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Antal Bokor

Antal is video game advocate, retro game collector, and video game historian. He is also a small streamer, occasional podcast guest, and writer.