In the three decades since Metroid first launched on the NES, there have been countless imitators. Nintendo’s sci-fi exploration series helped pioneer the idea of non-linear exploration, dropping players into complex environments, and forcing them to figure out how to proceed with little in the way of instructions. You can see its influence in series like Castlevania and Dark Souls, along with an entire cottage industry of indie developers crafting their own “Metroidvanias,” as the genre has since been dubbed.
But even in this crowded landscape, there’s still something singular about Metroid. While other games may have emulated its structure and style, none has similarly captured its captivating sense of isolation. As you explore the worlds featured in the various iterations of Metroid, there’s a powerful feeling that you’re completely alone, fighting against a planet and creatures that are truly alien.
Metroid: Samus Returns, which launches this week on the Nintendo 3DS, really drives home just how unique the series is. It’s the long-awaited return to Metroid’s side-scrolling roots — the last 2D Metroid came out over a decade ago — and a game that updates the formula in clever ways, making it more palatable to modern audiences.
Technically, Samus Returns is a remake of Metroid II, which first launched on the original monochromatic Game Boy back in 1991. Metroid II was always something of a black sheep for the series. Not only was it a simpler experience due to the limited hardware, it also introduced a unique structure that saw heroine Samus Aran travelling to an alien world to wipe out all of the titular metroids. It’s a setup that was never repeated in later entries in the series.
But while it’s billed as a remake, Samus Returns is really more of a reimagining. It keeps the same basic structure, but updates or changes pretty much everything else. At the outset, Samus lands on SR388, the home planet of the metroids, a race of energy-sapping parasitic monsters. At the bottom of the screen is a counter that starts at 40 — that’s how many of the alien creatures are on the planet, and once they’re wiped out, your job is done. As in all Metroid adventures, you start out with a limited arsenal of weapons and abilities, but over time you’ll unlock new ones, which in turn let you defeat new enemies and open up new areas of the planet to explore.
The most obvious difference between Samus Returns and Metroid II is visually. In place of the original’s cramped, black-and-white visuals, are 3D graphics rendered in that chunky style so common in 3DS games. This makes the game more playable than its predecessor; Metroid II was always hindered by the Game Boy’s tiny screen, which left little room to see anything beyond Samus’s immediate surroundings. Samus Returns gives the planet room to breathe. This not only makes the game easier to play, but it also turns out to be a great storytelling tool.
Like most Metroid games, there’s little explicit storytelling or dialogue in Samus Returns. Instead, you pick up much of the narrative by observing the world around you. And Samus Returns is full of details that make SR388 feel like a real, living place. In the early areas you’ll see the spacesuits of unfortunate adventurers who didn’t make it very far, and throughout the subterranean planet you’ll come across all kinds of ancient relics and machinery, along with mysterious creatures skittering away in the background. It’s even one of the few games to make great use of the 3DS’s glasses-free 3D effect, which adds a wonderful sense of depth to the world.
But the differences go far beyond just how the game looks. One of the most important changes is how Samus can move and aim. She now has the ability to fire at enemies with a full 360 degree range, and she also has a melee attack that you can use to knock back foes and link together attacks. There are also abilities that were never included in Metroid II, some of which, like the grappling beam, were pulled from later Metroid games. This new range of skills comes in handy against new enemies that possess an impressive array of behaviors that force you into trying different tactics. There are giant slugs that will run away when scared, leaving a poisonous trail behind them, and annoying swarms of insects to test your patience. Each requires you to fight them in a slightly different way.
Combat in Samus Returns feels fast and fluid, but that doesn’t mean it’s been transformed into a straight-up action game. The core of the experience is still the moody exploration that has defined the series for the last 30 years. SR388 is divided into a number of subterranean areas, each connected by a series of elevators. As you hunt for metroids, you’ll often come across areas that are inaccessible. Maybe a ledge that’s too high to reach, or a door that can’t be opened. Eventually you’ll get access to the right tool or ability, and you can then head back to the same spot — sometimes hours later — to finally get through. The planet is a complex maze, and navigating it requires you to constantly re-explore areas using newfound abilities, sometimes in ways that aren’t immediately obvious.
Perhaps the highlight of the game, though, is the metroids themselves. Over the course of the game, you’ll encounter the aliens at various stages of development, starting with the iconic jellyfish-like creatures, before moving on to much more sinister and powerful forms. Each fight is like a mini boss battle, and they can get incredibly intense. Some span multiple areas, as you’ll have to chase a metroid around as it tries to avoid your missiles, while others feature towering, Godzilla-like creatures that seem virtually invincible the first time you come against them. There were plenty of thrilling moments where I just managed to defeat a metroid while my health was near depleted.
The setup of Samus Returns is great for two reasons. One, it gives you a real sense of progress. As you steadily take down metroids, it’s incredibly satisfying to see that big number go down and continue to shrink and shrink. But the fact that there are so many means you also can’t fully relax. A new metroid could be behind almost any door. As quiet and methodical as the game can be, it also manages to completely keep you on edge, even as Samus becomes increasingly powerful.
The game also makes a number of changes to make the experience feel more modern, and for the most part they’re welcome. There are now save points liberally spread throughout the planet, along with recharge stations to replenish your health and ammunition. There are also teleport stations that make backtracking through areas much less tedious. Meanwhile, it turns out that the 3DS is a perfectly suited platform for Metroid — the second screen now serves as a constantly updated map. After spending more than 20 hours with Samus Returns, it feels like an essential feature. I’m not sure I want to play a Metroid without an always-on map ever again.
Purists may balk at these changes, which can make the game slightly more forgiving. But for the most part they remove tedium, not challenge, and smooth out the experience. The one exception, for me, is a new scanning ability that lets you search for hidden passageways. It’s fine when you’re completely stuck, but it also removes some of the thrill of discovery. Finding secret areas doesn’t feel quite so special when you use it. (That said, some of the best power-ups are hidden behind clever environmental puzzles that do require a bit of thinking to solve.)
Like Metroid: Zero Mission before it, Samus Returns is an ideal reimagining, a game that takes the essence of the series and makes it feel completely at home on modern hardware. There’s no aspect of Samus Returns that feels archaic. It’s a game that belongs in 2017. But more than just being a great remake, it’s also a great reminder of what Metroid is. Spinoffs like Other M and Federation Force largely got away from the focus on freeform exploration that made Metroid so iconic. They were loud and busy. Samus Returns is the opposite. It’s dark and moody, slow and methodical — everything a Metroid should be. Hopefully it won’t be another decade before we can experience that feeling again.
Metroid: Samus Returns launches on September 15th on the Nintendo 3DS.