There are plenty of reasons why Metroid: Samus Returns amassed so much hype in just the few short months that the world knew it existed. It’s the first game in seven years where gamers can assume the role of legendary Nintendo icon Samus Aran. For many, it’s the first “true” Metroid game in a decade, after the last two entries were largely regarded as [disappointing] spinoffs. Going back even further, it’s the first Metroid game with a 2D perspective in 14 years, the last coming in the form of Metroid: Zero Mission for the Gameboy Advance.
Add one more reason to the list, now—it’s a fantastic update to one of the lesser-known Metroid titles that captures the spirit of the original, while appropriately updating its framework for modern day gaming.
The original title, Metroid II: Return of Samus, dropped all the way back in 1991 for the Gameboy. By that, we’re not talking even Gameboy Color; we’re talking the grey, heavy brick of a handheld whose color palette was limited to four shades of monochrome glory. When the game was first released, the Super Nintendo system was hardly a year old.
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A title of such age is sure to need some polish to be presentable in this generation of gaming. Metroid: Samus Returns gave its predecessor a full makeover thanks to the 3DS hardware, bringing a whole new level of color and detail to the planet SR388. Metroid purists may have wanted a return of spritework, but they can be assured that the 2.5D visuals were a fine choice for the game’s updated look. The 3D character models all look great, and more importantly, move with greater fluidity than could ever come from 2D sprites, which is crucial to heightened moments of action that can occur during combat.
The 3D rendering really shines in the game’s beautiful backgrounds. The scenery behind Samus ranges from being lush and vibrant to being eerie and ominous, but it’s always brimming with personality. The backgrounds run on well past your traversable path, filling your view with all sorts of distant architecture, geological features, flora, and fauna.
One of the most-cited weaknesses of the original game was its music, which simply didn’t have the opportunity to impress due to the Gameboy’s technical limitations. The 3DS has no such limitations, and Metroid: Samus Returns redeems the original with an eclectic soundtrack. True to the series’ tradition of moody music, the tracks in Metroid: Samus Returns are all perfect fits for the settings and moments that they’re dropped into, working in harmony with the graphics to create that peerless Metroid atmosphere.
Metroid: Samus Returns Special Edition
Some tune ups were certainly needed to the game design and mechanics, and this remake accomplishes that without erasing what made the original special. The original game comes from an era where handholding was in scarce supply; direction on where to go was left for you to discover. For better, or for worse, ambiguity prevailed in the design of video games during Metroid II’s day.
That extreme independence still exists in this remake, if you should want it to. Metroid: Samus Returns only drops hints your way when you pursue them. Alerts for Metroid locations will pop up on your map should you consult a Chozo gate, and a new ability added to this remake allows you to briefly reveal the layout of the map for what environment you’re in without fully exploring it (sans contents).
There are also several added elevators and teleportation portals to help eliminate the extensive backtracking that existed in 1991. If you’ve never played the original from Gameboy, you’ll shudder at the thought of playing through the entire game without having those invaluable warp points to shuttle you from one end of the sprawling stages to the other. These features which break up the tedium are entirely optional, so if you’re determined to play it old school and find every last solution, location, and direction through your intuition, that choice is available to you.
The aforementioned means to reveal uncharted portions of your map comes from one of the brand new Aeion Abilities which have been included in this remake. Scan Pulse is what temporarily provides you map information; Lightning Armor provides an electrical barrier that damages enemies and absorbs damage to Samus; Beam Burst grants you a super-charged, rapid fire shot from Samus’s arm cannon; Phase Drift slows down time for everything around you.
For the most part, these abilities are also optional, although they can provide tremendous assistance when you’re in a pinch. Don’t become too reliant on them, however, since they run on Aeion units, which are a finite source of energy that go quick when utilizing the nifty powers.
Combat got a further overhaul with the inclusion of a free aim feature. Instead of just pointing up, down, straight, and diagonally, the 3DS’s directional pad lets you guide Samus’s arm cannon in a full 360 degree range. It should serve as no surprise that this makes shooting easier and more fluent than any four-way D-pad could ever hope to achieve.
Another, less necessary, but thoroughly-enjoyable addition to combat is a melee attack, where Samus can intercept enemy’s physical attacks with a swing of her arm. Not only will timing this right deflect the enemy’s attack, but it will also stun them so that you can strike back unopposed. When you face off with the game’s more fearsome enemies, landing the melee counter will add some cinematic flair to your battles by treating you to an interactive cutscene where Samus really takes it to her foe.
Even with all of these new moves and abilities that beef Samus up, this remake isn’t short on difficulty. Enemies hit hard, and there are more than a few environmental hazards that will do you in if you’re not careful while navigating about them. Anticipate seeing that Game Over screen many, many times.
The challenge is intense, but it’s usually fair, except for the archaic design of taking damage merely from making any physical contact with an enemy, which has no business in any modern video game. Tempering what uncommon frustration that may come from being battered by a Metroid is the rewarding nature of your victories, as well as your discoveries. Metroid: Samus Returns is masterful at rationing out new abilities over the course of your journey through the planet SR388. Just when you think you may have hit a dead end and that there’s no possible way to progress any further, the game is sure to have a new item or upgrade awaiting you, which will then open up more of the enormous environments or allow you the break down previously-impregnable barriers in earlier levels.
Metroid II: Return of Samus had one of the neater concepts in the franchise for its narrative. Samus is on an extermination mission here, coming to SR388 to hunt down the dangerous Metroid species. There are 40 Metroids dwelling in the depths of the planet, and the goal is make sure they go extinct, lest they run amok across the galaxy, or become biological weapons of the nefarious Space Pirates.
It’s a great premise, but it doesn’t entirely translate to the game design. This is the one entry in the series where you get to see the entirety of the Metroid life cycle, from the ‘infant’ stages all the way to the enormous Queen stage. The earlier–and smaller–stages account for the majority of the 40 Metroids you encounter, which means that you’ll be fighting an awful lot of the same creatures. Every Metroid is a formidable foe that feels like a miniboss (later, rarer encounters with the more advanced stages feel like true boss battles), but the battles do grow a little stale as you duke it out with Alpha and Gamma Metroids well in the double digits. There are a couple of brand new boss encounters that are perhaps the most challenging moments of the game; you’ll wish there were more like them when you’re fighting the same Metroid you’ve seen a dozen or more times before.
In 1991, Metroid: Return of Samus delivered a great concept with solid mechanics, but was ultimately held back by the limitations of its platform. The Nintendo 3DS rectifies that and provides the concept with the resources it has long deserved, not simply updating it, but enhancing it in almost every conceivable way. All of the atmosphere, exploration, and memorable, monstrous alien encounters that have made the series famous can be found here. Metroid: Samus Returns feels fresh enough to entertain those who played the original, and will be enthralling to those who are experiencing it for the first time.
+ Reimagined visuals and audio bring new life to the planet SR388, with environments that pop and music tracks that carry a lot of personality
+ Offers a mean challenge in all facets of the game, between combat, platforming, and puzzle solving
+ Pacing could not be better, as the game entices you to continue exploring while always offering new avenues before your progress comes to a dead halt
+ Players who relish in the prospect of discovering all secrets will find many hours worth of exploration, and great rewards that reveal the story behind this pivotal Metroid adventure
— Players who aren’t so entertained by 100%ing a game will find nothing left to do once they beat the 15 hour-ish story
— Too many encounters with the same type of Metroid minibosses
Jeff Pawlak is the Nintendo Expert on the Geekiverse; he’s been exploring dungeons as Link, leaping across obstacles as Mario, and blasting aliens as Samus for the past 24 years. You can find him on Twitter@JeffreyPavs, where he’s never short on words for what’s going in the world of Nintendo.
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